The Truth About Calcium From Dairy

Is dairy an essential source of calcium? Not quite. Here’s how to get calcium without dairy.

A dairy cow in captivity
Image Credit: AdobeStock

You must have heard it a thousand times – “you’re vegan, be careful to get enough calcium!” Those people have a point, but bone health is about more than just calcium, and calcium is about more than just dairy!

non-dairy Sources of Calcium

We need around 1000 mg of calcium a day, but we don’t have to get it from dairy.

Eating a plant-based diet can provide sufficient calcium, but we need to be mindful to eat foods that are good sources. They include:

  • Calcium-set tofu (not all tofu is made this way, so choose varieties that are; 4 oz of tofu gives you about 200 mg of calcium)
  • Fortified plant milks and yogurts (one serving will provide you with about 120 mg)
  • Bread (in the US and elsewhere, flour is often fortified with calcium and other nutrients. In 100 mg of bread, there is typically a minimum of 100 mg of calcium.)
  • Beans (about 4 oz of baked beans contains roughly 160 mg of calcium)
  • Spinach (one cup of cooked spinach yields 245 mg of calcium)
  • Kale (one cup of cooked kale yields about 177 mg calcium)
  • Other leafy green vegetables such as mustard greens, bok choy, broccoli, and chard are also great sources of calcium

Other foods that add a smaller but useful amount include sesame seeds, tahini, chia seeds, blackcurrants, black treacle or molasses, Brazil nuts, sultanas, and figs.

Getting your calcium from plants is not only possible, but it also offers significant advantages over dairy when it comes to overall bone health.

Casein can Damage the Gut

Cows’ milk contains a protein called casein which is associated with increased inflammation in the intestines. Once the delicate gut lining becomes damaged and inflamed, we have a harder time absorbing the vitamins and minerals in our food – including calcium and magnesium.

Plant Protein Beats Animal Protein

One cup of cows’ milk contains about 8 g of protein, and we need protein in our diets for energy, growth, and repair. Although protein is found in both animal and plant products – and it is pretty easy to find on a vegan diet – they are not the same. Protein from animals is linked to various health conditions, with one study reporting that a diet rich in animal protein is associated with a greater risk of early death. Protein from plants does not come with these risks.

Two Kinds of Vitamin A

There are two types of vitamin A. The first is preformed vitamin A which is found in animal products, including dairy. The second type is provitamin A, which is found in plants. The most common type is the carotenoid, beta-carotene. Population-based studies have linked high dietary intake of the animal-based preformed vitamin A to greater risk of osteoporosis and hip fracture. In contrast, carotenoids are associated with improved bone health.

It’s Not Just Calcium

Calcium is essential for bone health, and it can do its job a whole lot better if we also have a good supply of two other vitamins: vitamin D and vitamin K.

Vitamin D

Getting enough calcium is one thing, but we need to absorb it, and vitamin D is essential for this. In the summer months, the sunshine should allow our bodies to manufacture all the vitamin D we need, but in winter, those who are older or living in northern latitudes – including parts of the US – and those who have darker skin will need more. To ensure you get sufficient – not just for bone health, it helps our mental health too – it’s essential to include vitamin D in the diet. Choose:

  • Fortified plant milks, yogurts, and butters
  • Mushrooms
  • Many breakfast cereals, which are already fortified with it

Vitamin K

Good bone health also requires vitamin K as it helps keep calcium in the bones and away from the blood vessels.

Cows’ milk – like other animal products – contains minimal vitamin K, but it can be found plentifully in green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale, and broccoli, as well as in spring onions, kiwi fruit, grains, and vegetable oils.

What Shouldn’t We Eat?

A diet high in protein, alcohol, and caffeine can reduce absorption and retention of calcium, so avoid consuming too much of these.

Bone Health is More Than Diet

There are two more things to consider. We need to do regular weight-bearing exercises such as running, dancing, or lifting weights to strengthen our bones. (Swimming and cycling are great for overall health but do not meaningfully contribute to bone health.)

And finally, smoking is a risk factor for osteoporosis and bone fractures and should be avoided.

Looking for more information about the disadvantages of dairy? Check out our blog about cows and the dairy industry.

PAGE UPDATED AUGUST 2021

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