When our third child was starting to eat solid foods, we found out that he had a pretty severe dairy allergy. He was born 5 weeks premature (that whole story and my other birth stories here) and I found out that allergies are more common with babies born early or who are given certain medications at birth.
We were only consuming organic and raw sources of dairy like grass fed butter, raw milk or raw milk yogurt, and raw aged cheeses, but he wouldn’t be able to eat these foods. I was still nursing him and it became evident that I would also not be able to eat these foods while nursing.
I found that when I cut dairy, I also felt much better, lost weight more quickly and had smoother skin. On one hand, I hated finding that out (because I loved cheese) but on the other hand, I was glad to find out that my body didn’t tolerate dairy well so I could start addressing this problem.
At the same time, I had a relative who was dealing with reduced bone density and wanted to make sure that baby and I were still getting enough calcium without dairy. [side note: we have reversed my son's dairy allergy since this time but the information is still important]
How Much Calcium Do We Need?
I considered taking a calcium supplement but decided to research it first since I was still nursing. I was glad I did, because what I found surprised me.
I found that many people are allergic or intolerant to dairy. Some estimate said that as many as 6 out of 10 people may have some reaction to dairy. If over half the population may respond negatively in some way, it made me wonder about the biological need for dairy anyway.
Turns out, there are many foods that are just as high (if not higher) in calcium than dairy products, I just had a firmly entrenched idea that dairy=calcium thanks to all the “Got Milk” ads I saw growing up.
Calcium is one of the most abundant minerals in the human body and while we associate it with bone and tooth health, it is also important for muscle development, healthy blood pressure, and skin health.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium is 1,000 mg for men and 1,200 mg for women per day but it turns out that it isn’t really as simple as that. Not all calcium that we consume is absorbed and the amount we need to consume daily varies depending on the source of the calcium.
For instance, about 32-33% of the calcium from dairy products is absorbed. Our body actually needs 300-400 mg of calcium per day, but with dairy, this means we need to consume close to the RDA to get that level with the reduced absorption rate.
Other food sources are more absorbable like bone broth, dark leafy greens, fish with bones, and even carrots. Some foods like spinach, which is often suggested as a good dietary source of calcium, are only 5% absorbable, which make them great for other nutrients but not a good source of calcium.
Bottom line: We need about 300-400 milligrams of absorbed calcium per day from food sources and not much more than that.
Too Much Calcium?
Overzealous marketing from the dairy industry may have us believe that calcium is a wonder-mineral (it is) and that the more we consume the better (not so much), but in this case, the dose makes the poison.
As Chris Kresser explains, supplemental intake of calcium can be problematic, but dietary intake of calcium is considered safe and healthy:
“Beyond being ineffective for bone health, calcium supplements are associated with some pretty serious health risks. Studies on the relationship between calcium and cardiovascular disease (CVD) suggest that dietary intake of calcium protects against heart disease, but supplemental calcium may increase the risk. A large study of 24,000 men and women aged 35–64 years published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2012 found that those who used calcium supplements had a 139% greater risk of heart attack during the 11-year study period, while intake of calcium from food did not increase the risk. A meta-analysis of studies involving more than 12,000 participants also published in BMJ found that calcium supplementation increases the risk of heart attack by 31%, stroke by 20% and death from all causes by 9%.”
To be safe, calcium should be consumed from food sources and not synthetic supplements or artificially fortified foods. Foods like orange juice, breakfast cereals and many breads and crackers are fortified with calcium and also contribute to calcium consumption (though I don’t recommend consuming these foods).
Calcium consumption also doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just because calcium enters the body, doesn’t mean it is correctly used by the body.
Vitamin D and Magnesium are both necessary for the body to use calcium and without these, calcium won’t be absorbed correctly. One study showed that people who were deficient in Vitamin D only absorbed 14% of the calcium from food while those with adequate Vitamin D levels absorbed 58% of the calcium from their food.
Many natural food sources of calcium (like fatty fish with bones in) are also good sources of Vitamin D which is another reason the calcium in these foods is more absorbable.
Calcium and magnesium are both needed by the body but must be in proper ratio to be used correctly. Our modern diet is often very high in calcium from synthetic sources and low in sources of magnesium.
The body uses magnesium to convert vitamin D into its active form so that it can be used in calcium absorption. Magnesium is also used in the creation of the hormone calcitonin. This hormone is vital for bone health and and keeping calcium in the bones and not the blood stream, lowering the likelihood of osteoporosis, some forms of arthritis, heart attack and kidney stones.
Vitamin K is also important for calcium synthesis. It helps keep calcium in bones and out of arteries and muscles. K1 is found in dark leafy greens like Kale, Collard, and Swiss Chard, and Vitamin K2 (also called Activator X by Dr. Weston A. Price) is found in grass fed (but not grain fed) butter, chicken livers and natto.
A diet high in phytic acid (found in grains) can also inhibit proper calcium uptake and use in the body.
Consuming calcium without magnesium, Vitamin K and Vitamin D is at best ineffective and possibly dangerous.
Food Sources of Calcium:
Dairy is the most common food source of calcium but by no means the only food source or even the best food source.
There are many nutritious and dairy-free foods that are an excellent source of calcium. Some great real-food budget-friendly options for getting enough calcium are:
Bone broth is an excellent source of calcium and many other minerals. Here is my tutorial on a budget-friendly and simple way to make bone broth and consume it daily. Broth also contains the amino acids proline and glycine which are important for digestion, skin health, nervous system health and wound healing. They are needed for production of glutathione, which plays a protective role in the body.
Broth can be made from chicken, beef, lamb, bison or even fish bones for just pennies a cup and is a great way to add calcium to the diet. Boiling and simmering the bones over long periods of time allows the calcium and other minerals to dissolve in to the water.From this article:
“Science validates what our grandmothers knew. Rich homemade chicken broths help cure colds. Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons–stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.”
Even a tiny amount of calcium from bones is easily absorbed, making broth one of the best sources of calcium.
Fish with Bones
Fish with bones are an excellent source of calcium. An easy and inexpensive way to consume fish with bones is in the form of canned fish like salmon (with bones) and sardines (with bones). The bones become soft during the canning process so they can be easily chewed and consumed with the fish.
I know, I know… you might have just wrinkled your nose in disgust at the thought of sardines, but as Diane of Balanced Bites so perfectly put it:
“Y’all need to put your big boy or girl pants on, get a tin of wild sardines, grab some sea salt and lemon or hot sauce, and DIG IN.”
One six-ounce serving of canned wild salmon has over 110 grams of absorbable calcium and canned sardines rank about the same (or higher). Since these foods are also a good source of Vitamin D, they enhance digestion of the calcium and make it more usable.
Dark, Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens are another great dietary source of calcium, though some are better than others. Collard Greens, Turnip Greens, Bok Choy, Kale and Broccoli all ranked really well for being absorbable sources of calcium while spinach and seaweed ranked low on the list.
Dark leafy greens are also great sources of folate, Vitamins A, C, E and K and B-vitamins. Jonathan Bailor, author of The Calorie Myth, is fond of saying that if you make no other changes in your diet, you will see positive results just from adding a few extra servings of green leafy vegetables a day.
There are many other food sources of calcium including:
Beans (if tolerated)
Eating probiotic rich foods (like sauerkraut, water kefir, kimchee, etc) will help the body digest all foods and assimilate more nutrients. Optimizing Vitamin D levels will also help the body use calcium more efficiently and improve digestion.
How To Get Enough Calcium Without Dairy:
The bottom line is that those who for health or personal reasons choose not to consume dairy can absolutely get enough calcium. In many cases, non-dairy food sources of calcium can be healthier since they are also sources of other vitamins and minerals.
Those (like me) who don’t consume dairy should be conscious of the need for real food sources of calcium and make an effort to include foods like broth, fish with bones, green leafy vegetables and other healthy sources of fats, protein and vegetables as part of a varied diet.
Do you eat dairy? Do you consume these other foods?