Many families are now choosing to reduce their intake of animal products in their diet for ethical or environmental reasons. How do you get enough dairy free calcium?
If you have gone dairy free it is important to ensure you’re still getting the right levels of key nutrients as part of a broad and balanced diet.
Are you sensitive to dairy?
If you’ve given up dairy due to suspected intolerance, you may be ok with some dairy foods, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Yoghurt, kefir (fermented yoghurt), butter or cheese may be tolerated by people who find milk makes them bloated or causes IBS symptoms.
We have a digestive enzyme called lactase that breaks down the sugar in milk, lactose. If you don’t make enough of this enzyme you may get a reaction when you eat dairy foods because the food isn’t properly broken down.
Yoghurt can be easier to digest because the fermentation process helps to break down the lactose. Yoghurt and kefir also boost our microbiome by adding healthy bacteria in the gut.
If you don’t include any dairy in your diet at all there is a huge range of non-dairy alternative products on the market nowadays.
In particular, plant milks have become more mainstream recently. These don’t replace the nutritional profile of cow’s milk in a like for like way; most are very low in protein, fats and don’t include calcium or iodine.
These drinks can form part of your diet, but don’t rely on them as good source of nutrients.
Dairy free iodine
Iodine can be lacking in those who give up dairy foods as we tend to focus on replacing calcium but forget about other nutrients.
You can find iodine in seaweed or white fish like cod or haddock.
Calcium – essential for life
We need calcium to build strong bones and teeth and 99% of calcium is stored in your bones. It’s also used in blood clotting, nerve messages and every muscle contraction you make, including making your heart beat. So it’s pretty essential!
We don’t need dairy foods in our diet, but we do need to eat a diet that is rich in calcium.
When we don’t eat enough calcium, it is removed from the bones which can lead to brittle bones.
Non-dairy sources of calcium include tofu (in water, not marinated) sesame seeds, almonds, green leafy veg like kale, broccoli or collard greens, dried figs, rhubarb and beans.
If you eat fish, tinned sardines including the bones in are a good source of calcium.
How much calcium do we need?
There is a larger need for calcium during the teenage years, and during breastfeeding (see table for details). People with a condition that limits absorption, like Crohns Disease or Colitis may also struggle to get enough through diet alone.
Breastfeeding mums are advised by the NHS to take a calcium supplement of 600-1000mg to protect their bones if dairy free.
Your breastmilk will take calcium from your bones if there isn’t enough in the diet, so it can impact on future bone density.
How maximise calcium from your diet
- Ensure sufficient Vitamin D – we need Vitamin D to help our body use the calcium from our diet. The best way to get Vitamin D is from the sun, but in the UK people are advised to supplement the diet from September to April. This is because during winter months the sun doesn’t rise high enough in the sky to promote Vitamin D production in the skin
- Reduce your salt intake – when we eat too much salt we excrete it through urine, and calcium is taken out as well. So to protect your calcium intake, ensure salt levels are within the 6g per day guidelines.
- Space calcium rich foods through the day – We can’t absorb huge amounts of calcium at one time, so it’s best to spread out your calcium rich foods to ensure you are making the most of what you do eat.
This article first appeared in Juno Magazine in October 2019. https://www.junomagazine.com/non-dairy-calcium/