10 ways to get your calcium if you don’t eat dairy

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As we age, we become more at risk of bone breaks such as a hip or wrist fracture, leaving us bed-bound in hospital for a long recovery, not to mention the rehab required afterwards. Rehab wards at hospital are full of older adults recovering from fractures – so how do we stop this from being us?

There is good news. For strong bones, you need calcium and a matrix of other minerals such as magnesium and phosphorus as well as vitamin D (from sunshine) and vitamin K (vegetables).

(Not forgetting weight-bearing exercise such as walking or weights.)

Adults need between 1000 and 1300mg calcium per day to maintain strong bones. As we get older, we hit that upper end of 1300, especially for women after menopause. Therefore it becomes increasingly important to ensure we have adequate calcium.

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There are many non-dairy alternatives in supermarkets for those who are lactose intolerant or choose not to consume dairy

But what do you do if you have lactose intolerance or a milk allergy? Or don’t really like the taste of milk or yoghurt? Or choose not to consume dairy for religious or animal welfare reasons?

Ideally it’s best is to consume a little dairy and not cut this completely from our diet, as dairy contains protein and lactose, a natural sugar, both of which work to improve the absorption of calcium into the body.

In contrast, plant sources such as nuts, seeds and vegetables contain oxalates, while whole grains contain phytates, which bind to calcium and hinder its absorption. So it’s not just the total calcium content - it’s the combination of these positive helpers and negative hinderers that give the net result.

Here are 10 foods that contain a lot of calcium, listed in order of usefulness. Aim for around 250mg calcium per serve so you get one-quarter of your day’s needs.

1. Canned sardines
If you eat its softened edible bones, a small can of sardines makes an inexpensive and convenient way to up your calcium. And create a quick winter’s lunch. It gives you a nice 285mg calcium. Plus you get quality protein, vitamin D and those valuable omega-3 fatty acids for a smart brain and circulation.

2. Canned salmon
Again eating those small bones is a great way to get your calcium. One small can (95g) gives you 232mg calcium.

3. Prawns
You’d never suspect that prawns provide calcium but they do! A 200g serve (about 10 unpeeled medium prawns) provides 252 mg calcium.

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Seafood such as sardines, salmon and prawns, is a smart (and delicious) way to boost your calcium intake

4. Fortified plant milks such as soy milk
Soy milk with calcium (for example, So-Good, Vita Soy and CalciPlus) is an easy substitute for those unable to consume dairy foods. If you can spot “calcium phosphate” or “calcium carbonate” on the ingredient list OR can see that there’s 120mg per 100mL, then you know this is equivalent to cow’s milk. A cup supplies around 300mg.

5. Tofu
Tofu or soybean curd is a popular meat substitute for vegetarians. A 100g block of firm tofu gives you a nice 330mg of calcium, but only if calcium sulphate is used as the coagulant (setting agent). If magnesium sulphate (nigari) is used, then the tofu will have about half that calcium. You can check this on the label.

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Incorporating tofu in dishes, such as a savoury pancake stuffed with tofu, spinach, onion and garlic, can add to your calcium needs

6. Tahini
People rave about the calcium from tahini (ground sesame seeds, a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine), but it’s got to be taken in context. At 330mg per 100g, there seems a lot of calcium present, but the oxalates render much of this unavailable. However, tahini is easy to use and great for adding to yoghurt and satay-like sauces. Around 1/4 cup (60g) of tahini gives you 200mg of calcium but remember this is a lot to eat each and every day.

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Not only do they make a great, healthy snack but almonds are another fantastic way to get your calcium

7. Almonds
Almonds stand out from other nuts thanks to their rich calcium content. A large handful (50g) or about 30 almonds, delivers 10 per cent of the recommended intake. Providing fibre, healthy fats, protein and vitamin E, almonds make a great snack.

8. Bok choy
Popular in Asian stir-fries, bok choy is a low-oxalate vegetable that delivers calcium. But the amounts you have to eat are immense – half a cup or 70g of cooked bok choy only supplies 42mg which is barely anything. To reach the calcium of a glass of milk, you’d need to eat 3 ½ cups. So think of it as a calcium top-up.

9. Kale
Marketed as a superfood, kale too stands out because it is low in oxalates. This makes it a better source of calcium than spinach or cabbage. Half a cup of cooked kale (70g), however only gives you 105mg so it’s another top-up.

10. Calcium supplements
If all else fails, take a calcium supplement with at least 600mg of elemental or “pure” calcium. The best bio-available compounds are calcium gluconate or calcium lactate. Take with food.

Non-dairy foods and their calcium content

Further reading:  Is a vegetarian diet adequate? - Medical Journal of Australia.

Do you abstain from dairy? How do you keep your calcium levels up?

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Image credit: (in-text) Milleflore Images / Shutterstock.com