Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, is vital for building strong bones and teeth but it’s also needed for muscle contraction, nerve function and the release of hormones and enzymes that affect countless body processes. Plus, research suggests that getting enough calcium may guard against PMS (premenstrual syndrome), high blood pressure, colorectal cancer and calcium oxalate kidney stones.
It’s true that dairy is an exceptional source of calcium. But it’s not the only source. Far from it. Other excellent sources of calcium exist making it entirely possible to meet daily calcium needs from a dairy-free diet. And many of these foods are also brimming with other beneficial nutrients and phytochemicals.
How much calcium?
Adults, aged 19 to 50, need 1000 milligrams of calcium per day. After 50, calcium requirements increase to 1200 mg per day for women. For men, daily calcium needs increase to 1200 mg after age 70. Children and teenagers, aged 9 to 18, require 1300 milligrams of the nutrient each day. Younger children need 1000 mg (4 to 8 years) and 700 mg (1 to 3 years) daily.
Non-dairy calcium sources
If you substitute cow’s milk with a fortified non-dairy beverage (e.g. soy, almond, rice, coconut) in smoothies and on breakfast cereal, you’ll get just as much calcium as you would if you used milk. Fortified non-dairy beverages provide 300 to 330 milligrams of calcium per one cup serving. And like milk, they also provide 100 IU of vitamin D per one cup. (Check the nutrition label; fortified plant beverages have provide 25 to 30% of the daily value (DV) for calcium and 25% to 45% of the DV for vitamin D.)
Cultured coconut milk, a dairy-free alternative to yogurt, is also fortified with calcium. Unflavoured products can have as much as 385 mg per ¾ cup serving.
Canned salmon (with bones) and sardines are also calcium-rich foods. Half a tin of salmon (106 g), for example, delivers 220 mg of calcium and one tin (80 g) of sardines serves up 275 mg. Here’s a bonus: salmon is among the very few foods that contain vitamin D, a nutrient that works with calcium to boost bone health.
Add one-half of a tin of salmon to your green salad and you’ll get as much as 880 IU of vitamin D, the amount found in nearly nine cups of milk. Sardines provide some vitamin D too, about 175 IU per 80 g can.
Including green vegetables such as kale, bok choy, spinach, broccoli and rapini in your daily diet will also help increase your calcium intake. You’ll get more calcium if you eat your vegetables cooked rather than raw. That’s because some plant foods contain oxalates, natural compounds that bind to calcium causing it to be poorly absorbed. Cooking vegetables increases the amount of calcium that’s available for absorption by releasing what’s bound to oxalates.
Leafy green vegetables are also high in vitamin K, a nutrient that large studies have linked to better bone health.
Beans, nuts and seeds can supply considerable calcium to your diet too. So does firm tofu that’s been processed with calcium (look for calcium sulfate on the ingredient list).
While I advise meeting calcium requirements from foods first, some people with higher calcium requirements (e.g. adolescents, older adults) may need to take a calcium supplement to bridge the gap in their diet. As always, speak to your health care provider about the supplementing safely.
For many people, getting a day’s worth of calcium from a dairy-free diet means eating more plant-foods, foods that provide calcium as well as plenty of fibre, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Hardly a trade-off.
Looking for calcium beyond the dairy case
Use the following chart to help you add calcium-rich foods to a dairy-free diet. Calcium content is provided in milligrams (mg).
Calcium fortified plant & fruit beverages
Almond milk, 1 cup, 300 to 330 mg
Coconut milk, 1 cup, 300 to 330 mg
Cultured coconut milk, ¾ cup, 165 to 385 mg
Hemp milk, 1 cup 300 to 330 mg
Oat milk, 1 cup, 300 to 350 mg
Rice milk, 1 cup, 300 to 330 mg
Soy milk, 1 cup, 300 to 330 mg
Orange juice, 1 cup, 300 to 360 mg
Salmon, canned, with bones, ½ can (106 g), 220 mg
Sardines, 1 can (80 g), 275 mg
Beans & Soy
Baked beans, 1 cup, 154 mg
Black beans, 1 cup, 84 mg
Garbanzo beans (chickpeas), 1 cup, 65 mg
Kidney beans, 1 cup, cooked, 92 mg
Navy beans, cooked, 1 cup, 123 mg
Pinto beans, cooked, 1 cup, 175 mg
Soybeans, cooked, 1 cup, 261 mg
Soy nuts, roasted, 1/4 cup, 60 mg
Tofu, raw, firm, with calcium sulfate, ½ cup, 253 mg
Nuts, Seeds & Nut butters
Almonds, whole, 1/4 cup, 94 mg
Almond butter, 2 tbsp, 112 mg
Brazil nuts, 1/4 cup, 53 mg
Tahini, 2 tbsp, 128 mg
Cabbage, cooked, 1 cup, 72 mg
Beet greens, cooked 1 cup, 164 mg
Bok choy, cooked, 1 cup, 158 mg
Broccoli, cooked, 1 cup, 62 mg
Collard greens, cooked, 1 cup, 266 mg
Kale, cooked, 1 cup, 94 mg
Okra, cooked, 1 cup, 124 mg
Rapini (Broccoli raab), cooked, 1 cup, 200 mg
Spinach, cooked, 1 cup, 245 mg
Swiss chard, cooked, 1 cup, 102 mg
Turnip greens, cooked, 1 cup, 197 mg
Figs, dried, 5, 68 mg
Orange, 1 medium, 52 mg
Blackstrap molasses, 1 tbsp, 180 mg
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.