Is Dairy My Only Source of Calcium? Dietitian Answers

There are several nutrients that help you stay healthy, and one of the most talked about is calcium. That’s because it’s abundant throughout the human body and plays a key role in bone and teeth integrity and cell signaling. Although animal dairy products are some of the richest sources of calcium, they aren’t the only options. Keep reading to learn about other options you can eat to meet your calcium requirements.

What calcium sources are available?

Probably the most well-known source of dietary calcium comes from dairy products. These include milk, yogurt, cheeses, sour cream, and kefir. Although these foods come in different flavors and textures, they all contain calcium because they’re made with animal milk — usually from a cow, goat, or sheep.

Some people limit their intake of animal dairy products and need to find alternative food sources to satisfy their calcium needs. People choose to eat less dairy for medical reasons, to decrease their environmental footprint, for animal welfare, or to manage lactose intolerance. Below are more in-depth examples of why someone might cut back on dairy.

ReasonExplanation
Being lactose intolerantYour body doesn’t have lactase, an enzyme that helps break down lactose molecules. After eating dairy, you may experience bloating, painful cramps, gas, and urgent stools.
Reduce saturated fatPeople with elevated cholesterol levels are told to reduce their intake of saturated fats naturally occurring in dairy products.
Going veganA vegan diet excludes all animal products, including by-products like dairy.
CostPlant-based sources of food may be more affordable than dairy products.

If you omit dairy from your diet, you must eat other calcium-rich foods to satisfy your nutrient requirements.

Importance of calcium in diet

Calcium is a mineral that helps you maintain strong bones and teeth. It also helps send electrical impulses through nerves that stimulate muscle contractions, including heart tissue, for a heartbeat. Additionally, calcium helps with healthy blood clotting.

Most adults need 1,000–1,300 mg daily, with needs decreasing as you age. Getting as much calcium as possible from food is recommended because it tends to be the best absorbed. Food also contains other essential nutrients that help you stay healthy, like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

Non-dairy calcium-rich foods

There are plenty of non-dairy calcium-rich foods to enjoy. Many plant-based options are listed below, but if you eat fish (sometimes called a pesca-vegetarian or pescatarian) — you can enjoy tinned salmon with the bones in. They’re very soft and can easily be mashed with a fork before eating, and a 3-ounce serving offers approximately 180 mg of calcium.

Leafy greens: a powerhouse of calcium

Dark, leafy greens contain fiber, iron, potassium, and calcium. Most can be eaten fresh in a salad or blended into a smoothie. You can add them to pasta sauces, soups, and other baked dishes during the winter months.

  • Kale (calcium in cooked kale is more easily absorbed versus raw)
  • Collard greens
  • Broccoli
  • Beet greens
  • Bok choy

Nuts and seeds: nature's calcium boosters

Nuts and seeds are rich in unsaturated fats (healthy fats) and minerals, such as magnesium, potassium, calcium, and zinc. The newest USDA nutrition guidelines suggest eating a handful (approximately one-fourth cup) of mixed nuts daily, and you can also add them to a stir-fry or salad.

  • Almonds
  • Chia seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soy nuts

Fortified foods: an alternative source

Fortified products are extremely helpful in meeting your nutritional needs. They are a great way to eat calcium without relying on dairy products. Below are some fortified options you can eat.

  • Fortified orange juice
  • Fortified plant-based milk alternatives (soy, rice, almond, etc.)
  • Fortified boxed cereals
  • Fortified oatmeal
  • Fortified tofu

All of these foods can fit into a lactose-free diet. Also, aside from the canned salmon, the other plant-based calcium-rich foods are appropriate for a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Calcium in plant-based diets

A plant-based diet is one that favors vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds instead of processed foods. Most people who follow a plant-based diet may also opt to remove animal products from their diet, including meat, eggs, cheeses, and other by-products like honey.

Calcium is naturally found in several plant-based foods and can easily fit into your diet. To help you meet your nutrient goals, pick a calcium-rich food and build around it to create a balanced option.

Here are some examples you can enjoy:

  • An orange with a handful of roasted almonds
  • White bean salad with cucumber, tomato, bell pepper, dill, oil, and lemon juice
  • Smoothie with calcium-fortified soy milk, strawberries, spinach, and rolled oats
  • Baked broccoli florets with garlic, oil, and chili flakes

You can balance your calcium intake without dairy by preparing snacks in advance. Having ready-to-go food makes it much easier to stick with your health goals and meet your nutrient needs. If you ever need inspiration on what else to make, consider booking an appointment with a dietitian — they can give you a greater list of options to enjoy.

Calcium supplements: do I need those?

Calcium requirements are high (most adults need a minimum of 1,000 mg daily) and can be satisfied through food. However, some people may not meet their calcium needs if they’ve removed dairy products from their diet without researching other ways to get enough calcium (like eating more plant-based sources).

Remember, if you make dietary changes, such as eliminating an entire food group, you should consult your healthcare team to learn how to maintain your vitamin and mineral levels to prevent a deficiency. Chronically low calcium intake can increase your risk of bone disease, called osteoporosis.

If, after you make strategic changes and include more plant-based calcium foods, you’re below the calcium recommendation — your doctor may recommend starting a calcium supplement to 'top off' your intake. You should still try to get as much calcium as possible through food, but a small dose supplement can help.

There are several different types of calcium supplements on the market (popular options include calcium carbonate and calcium citrate). Some supplement formulas are absorbed better, and your pharmacist can recommend the best option.

Get started with a calcium-rich meal plan

Planning your meals can help you stay on top of your nutrition goals. It’s much easier to meet your calcium requirements when you have ready-made food to reheat and enjoy at home.

If it’s your first time meal planning, you might want to start small by only planning snacks. Start by choosing a calcium-rich food you enjoy and adding protein or fiber to help you feel full. Once this practice feels easy, move on to larger meals, like breakfast and lunch.

Leaving some room in your dining-out meal plan is okay (ideally, one or two nights at most), but most of your meals should be made at home. This way, they’re healthier, tailored to your nutritional requirements, and better for your financial health as it’s cheaper for most people to eat at home than dine out.

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