There are many reasons why you may not be eating dairy: you might have an intolerance or allergy to dairy, be vegan, paleo, or following a gut healing protocol like the Autoimmine Protocol, GAPS Diet or SCD Diet. Whether you are dairy-free by choice or necessity, in the modern diet dairy is most people’s main source of calcium. I’m sure you already know that calcium is needed in the body for healthy bones and teeth, but it is also needed for your muscles and nerves to work properly. If you are not getting enough calcium from your diet, your body may borrow it from your bones, and if this continues over a long period of time, this can lead to osteoporosis. Babies and toddlers who are still drinking plenty of breastmilk or dairy-free formula will be ok, but older children and adults will need to pay attention to their calcium intake. This is especially important if you are a breastfeeding mum because your calcium needs will be higher than usual.
The NHS website lists (among others) dairy, soya (as beans, tofu and soya drinks with added calcium), bread and anything made with fortified flour as good sources of calcium. However, soya is another common allergen, and bread of course contains wheat and gluten, so they are not suitable if you have multiple allergies or intolerances like we do. You can, of course, take supplements, but artificial nutrients taken in isolation, as they are in supplements, are less easily absorbed by the body than in their natural form, found in food sources. My personal preference is to change my diet to increase my calcium intake as well as taking a supplement.
Here are some of the food sources that are highest in calcium, but are suitable for those eating a paleo diet or with dairy, soya and/or gluten allergies:
- Tinned fish with bones
- Sesame seeds
- Chia seeds
- Dark green vegetables including kale, chard, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, greens, bok choi, spinach and broccoli
- Herbs and Spices
So how does this work in reality? Let’s be honest, tinned salmon with bones is not the most delicious food in the world, you probably aren’t going to be eating it every day. Here are some easy ways I have found to boost my calcium intake.
Here are some practical ways to use seeds that are high in calcium:
- Sprinkle sesame seeds over salads and stir fries
- Add chia seeds to a coconut milk smoothie
- Add ground flaxseed to any gluten-free/grain-free baked goods. (You may need to add a little more liquid. You can also mix flaxseed with water and use as an egg replacer if you are egg-free
Dark green vegetables are a great source of calcium and studies have shown that the calcium in green vegetables is actually more easily absorbed than the calcium in dairy! So you really should eat your greens.
- Have green vegetables on the side at dinner most days. Mix it up with broccoli, kale, chard, bok choi, spring greens, cabbage, brussels sprouts and spinach.
- Keep a bag of baby-leaf spinach in the fridge and add a handful to salads and smoothies (I promise you won’t taste it!)
- Keep a bag of frozen, chopped spinach in the freezer to add in cooking. I add it to anything ‘saucy’ – curries, pasta sauce, shepherd’s pie, bolognese sauce, etc.
Keep these foods on hand for a quick snack.
- Almonds (you can also use ground almonds in baking)
- Almond butter – with apples for dipping, stuffed into dates, on a rice cake with banana on top, or straight off the spoon (credit to Deliciously Ella for these ideas)
Home-Made Calcium Boosts
If you have a little more time you can prepare these foods to add extra calcium to your diet.
- Combine ground flaxseed, chia seeds and flaked almonds (plus any other chopped nuts or seeds you like) to make a topper for fruit salad or gluten-free cereal
- Homemade bone broth is a great source of calcium and other nutrients that are important for bone health like collagen. You can add it to sauces, use it as a base for soups and stews, or cook veggies, rice or quinoa in it.
- Spice it up: most herbs and spices contain a small amount of calcium. On their own they’re not sufficient but add them in your cooking and they will give you a little extra boost.
Real food sources of calcium are best as they are more easily absorbed by the body, and these nutrient-dense foods also contain other beneficial nutrients. However I do include some fortified foods in my diet, partly for taste and partly for convenience.
- Most non-dairy milk ‘drinks’ are fortified with calcium including almond milk and coconut milk drinks. I use these in cooking, to make quinoa porridge, or on gluten-free cereal. I also buy the flavoured drinks for a treat, although these do contain sugar.
- Orange juice
Calcium is not the end of the story when it comes to the nutritional value of dairy foods, and bone health. There are other minerals and vitamins to consider, like magnesium, Vitamin A, D and K2, as well as other nutrients like collagen. However it’s important to take your calcium intake into consideration if you’re dairy free, and the foods mentioned here are very nutrient dense; by eating more of these foods you will boost your intake of not just calcium but other nutrients as well.