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This week I have swapped blogs with Glenda Bishop from Healthy Stories. Glenda is a nutritionist who has completed a Master of Human Nutrition (we actually finished our studies at the same time!). Glenda has a special interest in food intolerances and developing recipes for custom eaters. Having problems digesting dairy herself, I thought that Glenda was the perfect person to explain how to get enough calcium on a dairy-free diet. Over on Glenda’s blog I have written a post about food safety during summer. You should jump across to check it out!


People avoid dairy products for many reasons, including allergy or intolerance, a dislike of the taste, or because they wish to avoid all animal products. Sometimes people avoid dairy products because they think they will be healthier without them, or that dairy will make them fat, although this belief is misguided since scientific studies have found that regular dairy intake assists with weight maintenance [1,2]. Regardless of the reason for avoiding dairy, it’s essential to understand why dairy products are recommended by nutritionists, and what dietary changes you need to make if you avoid dairy products.

The purpose of dairy products in our diet

Dairy products are considered to be one of the 5 essential food groups. Each of the food groups has a specific nutritional purpose, and the prime purpose for dairy is that it supplies us with calcium. While you can find some calcium in other foods, no other natural foods can match dairy products for their calcium content. Calcium is an essential nutrient for bone strength. If we don’t get enough calcium through our diet we run the risk of developing brittle bones, or osteoporosis, later in life. This is because we need a constant amount of calcium in our blood so that our heart, muscles and nervous system function properly. Our body ensures this constant supply by removing calcium from our bones so that there’s always enough calcium in the blood for essential functions.This means that if we don’t get enough calcium from our diet, we won’t be able to replace the calcium taken from our bones.

How much calcium do you need each day?

Your calcium requirements depend on your age:

  • Adult men and women: 1000mg calcium per day.
  • Women over 50 years and men over 70 years: 1300mg calcium per day.
  • Teenagers: 1300mg calcium per day.
  • Children require less calcium than adults, but still require daily intake.

Counting calcium content in milligrams can be difficult, so nutritional guidelines instead use a counting method based on servings of dairy products. With this system, one serving provides about 300mg of calcium. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends the following daily servings:

How to get enough calcium on a dairy-free diet

Source: eatforhealth.gov.au

One serving of dairy products equals:

  • 250ml (1 cup) of milk.
  • 200g (3/4 cup) of yoghurt.
  • 40g (2 slices) of hard cheese (e.g. cheddar).
  • 120g (1/2 cup) of soft cheese (e.g. ricotta).

How can you get calcium if you don’t eat dairy products?

For people that don’t eat dairy products, the best sources of calcium are found in dairy alternatives. However these dairy alternatives must be fortified with added calcium to be classified as equivalent to dairy products and an appropriate serving in this food group. Because so many people now consume dairy alternatives, the Australian Dietary Guidelines now calls this food group the ‘milk, cheese, yoghurt or alternatives’ group.

One serving of dairy alternatives equates to:

  • 250ml (1 cup) of calcium-fortified soymilk, rice milk, oat milk or almond milk. It is critical that the milk alternative you choose is fortified to contain at least 100mg calcium per 100ml of milk for this to count as one serving.
  • 200g of calcium-fortified soy yoghurt.

What about other calcium sources?

There are two other non-dairy sources of calcium that are particularly useful:

  • Fish with edible bones. 60g of sardines canned in water, or 100g of canned pink salmon with edible bones, is equivalent to one serving of dairy.
  • Firm tofu (not silken tofu). About 100g of firm tofu is equivalent to one serving of dairy.

Some plant-based foods do contain small amounts of calcium, although in much lower amounts than is present in one serving of dairy. For instance, you would need to eat about 100g of almonds to equal the amount of calcium in one serving of dairy, yet you would normally only eat a small handful of almonds that weighs 30g. Plant-based calcium sources, such as almonds, chia seeds, linseeds, dried figs, spinach, broccoli and other greens, do contain calcium but should be considered as calcium boosters that add to your intake, rather than as major calcium sources.

How to get enough calcium on a dairy-free diet

Tips for getting enough calcium each day

  1. Use the tables above to work out how many servings of dairy alternatives you need to eat each day.
  2. Plan your daily intake by mixing and matching from the calcium-fortified milk alternatives, soy yoghurt, fish with edible bones and firm tofu, ensuring that they add up to the number of servings you need to eat each day.
  3. Try to eat calcium booster foods each day, such as almonds, seeds and greens, to provide a calcium back-up.
  4. Search for recipes that use high-calcium foods – check out my dairy-free recipes for some ideas to get you started.

References:
1. J Nutr. 2013;143(1): 46-52.
2. Int J Obes. 2012;36(12): 1485-93.

Glenda BishopGlenda Bishop is a university-qualified Nutritionist who wants to help people to eat better, live stronger and have a healthier life. She has a special interest in food intolerances and how they impact a person’s physical and mental wellbeing. Glenda blogs at Healthy Stories, a place where you will find sensible advice on nutrition and healthy eating, tasty and healthy recipes, and other tips on living a healthier life. You can connect with her on Google+, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Featured image courtesy of Amazing Almonds

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