When deciding to write this post about dairy-free calcium sources, I immediately thought of a favorite children’s book by Sandra Boynton titled “Are You a Cow?” To most this is a silly question, but to certain nutrition experts this question is pertinent. There’s much debate over whether cow’s milk should be part of your diet if you’re not a calf.
Though I personally don’t consume dairy, I don’t believe completely nixing animal milk is right for everyone. The perfect foods for my body may be poisonous to yours and vice versa. Whether or not you consume animal-based dairy foods getting adequate calcium is critical for healthy living. Despite what most people think, you can get plenty of calcium without having to milk a cow (though this is still on my bucket list – heck if I no why!)
There are several legitimate facts that support leading a dairy-free lifestyle. Animal welfare is of concern, since most dairy cows are kept constantly pregnant to facilitate milk production. Veganism may not be your thing, but that doesn’t change the fact that 70-90% of all humans become lactose intolerant after age five. Symptoms of lactose intolerance can be hard to distinguish because they can be as simple as gassiness and bloating. Like most people, I lived with these symptoms for years without ever suspecting it was related to my dairy consumption.
You may be one of the lucky ones who are thinking “I have no problem with dairy! Woot! Woot!” But, did you know last year two Harvard professors, Dr. Walter Willet and Dr. David Ludwig, refuted the USDA and AAP guidelines that claim a healthy diet should include three daily servings of reduced fat cow’s milk? They pointed to studies linking high levels of calcium intake to increased bone fractures and emphasized that reduced fat milk is so high in sugar it could be another hidden culprit in America’s obesity epidemic. In summary, their research suggests dairy isn’t the best source of calcium.
Whatever your reasons are for reducing or skipping dairy, it’s important that you still consume the Recommended Daily Allowance for calcium intake for your age and life stage. Pregnant and lactating mothers need slightly more because the body will pull calcium from wherever available (i.e., your bones) to produce enough for the developing fetus or a nursing child. Calcium is needed for building strong bones, healthy nerve function and proper functioning of the heart and muscles. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, it’s also associated with relieving mood swings, food cravings and PMS symptoms. (Well dog gone, I wish I’d known this for the past 20+ years!)
Below are some of my favorite dairy-free calcium sources. Be sure to consume a variety of sources, as well as adequate vitamin D, so your body has the best chance of absorbing and using the calcium. If you’re vegan and lactating, a calcium/magnesium supplement may be your best bet.
Kid-Friendly Dairy-Free Calcium Sources
- Spinach – 1 cup cooked provides 240 mg; mix into a soup or scrambled eggs for easy eatin’
- Almond butter – slather two tablespoons on apple slices for 110 mg
- Blackstrap molasses – just 1 tablespoon provides 135 mg; mix into oatmeal (my molasses-spiked chia oatmeal!) or use to sweeten plain baked beans
- Broccoli – just ½ cup cooked delivers 90 mg; roast it or enjoy it in a dairy-free mac-n-cheese sauce
- Tofu – 1 ounce can have up to 200 mg depending on its preparation; make a vegan meal or use it to make a dairy-free garden ricotta (your Italian grandmother won’t know the difference!)
- White beans – ½ cup provides 70 mg; blend with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice for a simple white bean dip
Two of my favorite packaged snacks with high levels of dairy-free calcium include:
Can you tolerate dairy or do you need to go dairy-free? How do you consume enough calcium? How do you combat those tempting dairy cravings? Tell us in the comments!