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  • Writer's pictureDr. Corina Kibsey

Why you don’t need dairy to get enough calcium

Updated: May 7, 2019

how to get enough calcium

Whenever I suggest that a patient eliminates dairy from their diet, their response is always the same. "But how do I make sure I'm getting enough calcium if I'm not having dairy?" Fair question. We see ads all the time telling us we need milk in order to have strong bones. But that may not necessarily be true. Let's talk about the problem with dairy, the importance of calcium, and some dairy-free calcium sources.

The problem with dairy

For many people, the issue with dairy is the fact that it contains lactose. According to the Canadian Digestive Health Foundation, more than 7 million Canadians are lactose intolerant! And that is even thought to be an underestimate, since it goes undiagnosed in many patients. Yes, those of us unfortunate enough to be lactose intolerant can take enzyme pills to prevent the unpleasant symptoms. This doesn't prove to be the best solution, however, since products like this cost over $500/year. And the real kicker is that they are sold over the counter, which means no insurance plans are going to cover it.

Another reason to consider dairy-free calcium sources? Cow's milk is thought to be pro-inflammatory. This means that it can worsen conditions like arthritis, autoimmune conditions, allergies, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and gastritis. The list goes on and on.

Additionally, dairy can lead to excess mucus formation. This means it can contribute to sinusitis, and it's not very helpful when you have a mucus-filled cough. That's why I suggest my patients avoid dairy when they get a cold!

What's so good about calcium anyway?

We've covered the negative aspects of dairy, so what's the upside? Foods and drinks containing dairy are high in calcium. The main role of this mineral is in the formation of bones and teeth. A calcium deficiency can lead to osteopenia (weakening of bone) and the more serious osteoporosis. Other roles that calcium plays are in nerve conduction, muscle contraction, and blood clotting. According to the Government of Canada, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1000 mg/day. Women over 50 have an increased need for calcium and require 1200 mg/day. Children between the ages of 9 and 18 years have the highest calcium needs of the population, requiring 1300 mg/day.

How much calcium is in dairy?

According to the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, calcium content of dairy products is as follows:

Yogurt (1 cup): 450 mg

Milk (1 cup): 300 mg

Swiss cheese (1 oz): 270 mg

Sour cream (1 cup): 250 mg

Mozzarella cheese (1 oz): 200 mg

Ice cream (1/2 cup): 100 mg

Cottage cheese (1/2 cup): 65 mg

Brie cheese (1 oz): 50 mg

How much calcium is in non-dairy foods?

These numbers are also taken from the UCSF Medical Center. Some foods have ranges, as their calcium content varies by brand:

Sardines (3 oz): 370 mg

Figs, dried, uncooked (1 cup): 300 mg

Sesame seeds, whole, roasted (1 oz): 280 mg

Canned mackerel (3 oz): 250 mg

Firm tofu (4 oz): 250-750 mg

Cooked spinach (1 cup): 240 mg

Cooked broccoli (1 cup): 180 mg

Canned salmon with bones (3 oz): 170-210 mg

Blackstrap molasses (1 tbsp): 135 mg

What about calcium-fortified foods?

Since there has been more of a demand for dairy-free calcium sources, some companies have started to add calcium to their food products. Unfortunately, these may not live up to the hype. Many of these products are full of calcium, but guess what else they're full of? Sugar.

Let's look at an example. Raisin Bran is fortified with 1000 mg of calcium. Your entire day's worth of calcium in one bowl of cereal? Perfect! Sounds super healthy! Until your eyes scroll down to the sugar content... 19 grams. For perspective, the maximum amount of added sugars a female adult should consume in one day is 24 grams. So along with all your calcium for the day, that one bowl of cereal is giving you almost all your sugar intake for the whole day. Yikes.

Here's another example, using calcium-fortified Tropicana orange juice. One cup of this product has 300 mg of calcium. Not bad. But guess how much sugar is in just that one cup of juice? 22 grams! If you think you're being healthy because you're drinking this, think again. The amount of sugar you are consuming can have tons of negative effects on your body that don't necessarily outweigh the positive effects of calcium.

What about absorbability?

Okay, so we've made it clear that we don't want calcium, we don't want too much dairy, and we don't want too much sugar either. Let's stick to dairy-free calcium sources. But how absorbable are they? When we eat or drink something, we don't get 100% of that food's nutrients absorbed into our bodies. For example, animal sources of iron (such as beef) are more absorbable than plant sources of iron. Does calcium work the same way? Thankfully, no. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition assessed the percentage absorbability of calcium in different foods. They found that calcium from dairy products has an absorbability of 32.1%. Some of the best absorbability rates of dairy-free calcium sources were tofu at 31%, kale at 49.3%, and broccoli at a whopping 61.3%. This means that some dairy-free calcium sources actually have a better calcium absorbability than dairy!

How do I incorporate non-dairy calcium sources into my diet?

Now that you know the ins and outs of dairy-free calcium sources, how can you apply this to your life? Well, let me tell you! If you want to get your 1000 mg of daily calcium but don't want to be consuming dairy for whatever reason, try this. Add a 1/2 cup of dried figs and a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses to your morning oatmeal. Then toss an ounce of whole roasted sesame seeds into your kale salad at lunch. Finally, add a cup each of cooked spinach and broccoli to your dinner. That works out to be 1040 mg of calcium for the day! It's not so hard when you think of it that way, is it?

Don't get me wrong here, I don't tell each and every patient to cut dairy out of their diet. But if I see it's causing an issue for them in terms of digestion, phlegm, or inflammation, then it's worth at least a trial elimination period. If you think dairy may be causing health issues for you or you want to discuss calcium supplementation, book an appointment with me today.

Photo courtesy of: bady qb

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