Calcium Without Dairy

If you follow any part of my real food approach, then you already know that I do not do dairy.  While I really like a warm, stringy, cheesy stuffed pepper as much as the next person, I do not like the zits it causes.  Other people do not like the gas and bloating it causes, and still others do not like the ache of their inflamed joints or the constant drip of their runny nose after consuming dairy.

The good news, there is hope for the masses who choose to live dairy free.  If we make educated food and beverage choices, then we can get much of the calcium we need from foods and beverages.  Short pause for a mini-disclaimer.  I am not a doctor and cannot diagnose or treat illnesses or diseases.  This information is for informational purposes only.  It is your responsibility to see your healthcare provider to determine the status of your bone health and create a plan to prevent or treat your own ailments.  Okay, let’s move on…
We already know that calcium is super important.  It is a mineral important for maintaining strong bones and teeth.  What many do not know though, is the small fraction of calcium in the blood is kept in a very narrow range, and is important for blood clotting and regulating muscle contractions such as your heart.  
Dietary Reference Intakes (aka DRI) from the Institute of Medicine is 1000 mg for adults 19-50 years old and 1200 mg for adults 51-70 years old.  Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need 1000-1300 mg. 
One of the main reasons dairy is recommended as the primary source of calcium is due its bioavailability, which simply means how much of the calcium in the food or beverage is available to be absorbed by the body.  Dairy provides the highest percentage of bioavailable calcium when compared to vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.  This is because plant-based sources of calcium also contain nutrients that inhibit absorption of calcium.  These are known as anti-nutrients, and include oxalates and phytates.  
On the other hand there are other nutrients, such as magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, vitamin D and boron that work along with calcium to enhance absorption. So, all of that to say…it is still possible to get calcium from plant-based sources by eating an abundance of different kinds of plants.  I eat over a pound of vegetables every day.  It does my body good.

The Diary Nutrition website has an awesome chart that puts the concept of bioavailability into perspective.  For example, it takes 3.2 cups of kale to provide the equivalent amount of calcium available in 1 cup of milk.  So, the point here is for those of us who do not or cannot consume dairy we must mindfully select foods, beverages and possibly even supplements to ensure we are getting enough calcium for optimal health…and you know how I feel about optimal health…it feels good and looks good, so it must be good.
I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but that is intentional.  Please understand that if we do not include food group that has  a significant source of nutrients,  then we must replace those nutrients in other forms.  That requires planning and expanding our culinary horizons.  Bacon and eggs taste great, but are not necessarily going to save the world unless we combine them with a  heaping pile of vegetables to add color, goodness and, of course calcium.
Here are my top 5 tips for getting calcium if you don’t do dairy
  1. Eat at least 1 serving of vegetables at every meal.  This is equivalent to 1/2 cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup of raw vegetables or 2 cups of leafy greens.  Work up to eating a pound of vegetables daily. Check the references at the bottom of this post for lists of foods that contain calcium.
  2. Try selecting seafood options with tiny little bones that are safe for consumption.  Those bones are filled with calcium and minerals and all the goodness we need.  The other great news is that these foods are more bioavailable then plant-based sources.  For an added bonus they also contain protein and omega 3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation, protect our heart and do other great things for us.
    • 3 ounces of canned salmon with bones contains 170-210 mg of calcium
    • 3 ounces of sardines contains 370 mg of calcium
    • 3 ounces of canned mackerel contains 250 mg of calcium
  3. Drink homemade bone broth.  Oh the goodness coming from bone broth is infinite.  It is filled with minerals and collagen.  It even has properties for healing and maintaining joint and gut health.  Stay tuned for a future blog post on this topic.  For now you can check out the Wellness Mama for her take on this good stuff and to get her recipe.  I prefer to make my bone broth in the slow cooker and love this post from Team Nutrition Genius.
  4. Add plenty of nuts and seeds to your diet if you can tolerate them.  A great snack might include 2 ounces of tahini (sesame paste) blended with 1 cup of sprouted garbanzo beans and garlic, salt, pepper to taste.  This is also know as humus and pairs really well with carrots and celery…yum!
  5. Check with your healthcare provider to determine if you need to supplement.  We can only absorb 500-600 mg of calcium at one time.  If you need a higher dosage, then split it up throughout the day.  You may also want to check out why Chris Kresser recommends eating your calcium rather than popping a pill for it.
And now for one last consideration.  There are products fortified with calcium, such as orange juice,  non-dairy milks, breads, cereals and crackers.  None of these are a part of my real food pantry for several reasons.  First, these items require a lot of processing that removes their natural goodness and adds in nutrients that did not exist before.  Second, all of these items include additives, preservatives, added sugars and other ingredients that most of us cannot pronounce.  Some of these ingredients can be difficult to digest, cause irritation and can lead to a leaky gut.  The added sugars also increase blood glucose.  If your body is anything like mine, then this sends me on a blood sugar roller coaster and inevitably I am hangry later.  Lastly, many of these products have shelf lives longer than my natural life. I do not trust food that does not go bad. 

So, once agin have no fear.  We can have strong bones and meet our calcium needs by eating real foods, even if we do not eat dairy.  Choose wisely and contact me at for your own nutrient assessment.

That’s it for now.  Hope this helps.
A Guide to Calcium-Rich Foods, National Osteoporosis Foundation.  Accessed at
Calcium and Bioavailability, Dairy Nutrition.  Accessed at 
Calcium Content of Foods – UCSF Medical Center.  Accessed at
Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, November 2010.  Accessed at 

Vitamins & Minerals Health Centre, WebMD.  Accessed at 

Confessions of a Real Food Dietitian

All of the reasons I LOVE nutrition are the same reasons why I make specific food choices.

I eat a lot of fat. It is the nutrient that I consume in the largest quantity, but guess what…I am HEALTHY. I am not obese and I am not at any increased risk for having a heart attack on my next run or stroking out as I climb the stairs at work. Mainstream medical professionals and functional medicine practitioners alike would look at my cholesterol panel (total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, HDL:LDL ratio and triglycerides) and give me a double thumbs up.
I choose fat from high quality sources. My favorites are avocados, whole olives, cold-pressed coconut oil, cold-pressed olive oil, real butter and fat that is found naturally in grass-fed, pasture-raised animal products. The major difference between my favorite fats and those found in the standard American diet (SAD) is that my list of fats are either real food or easily identifiable from their real food source.  Vegetable oils, that supposedly promote heart health, go through extensive processing, bleaching and deodorizing. Just watch this short video from Discovery Channel on how canola oil is made. It is gross, and certainly does not fit within my perception of a quality sourced product. 
My favorite fats have an optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-6 fatty acids are readily available in the standard American diet (SAD) with an over abundance found in vegetable oils. Excess omega-6s can increase inflammation and oxidative stress. On the other hand omega-3s are more abundant in grass-fed, pasture-rasied animal products, fatty fish (wild caught of course) and in nuts. These fatty acids can reduce inflammation and among other fabulous benefits have a positive effect on heart health. 
Not only am I eating a lot of fat, much of it is coming from saturated sources. These fats are solid at room temperature and are more stable. They better withstand heat and do not go rancid as quickly as unsaturated fats. By the time an unsaturated fat is processed and makes it to your kitchen it has been exposed to heat, air and light, all of which further contribute to its breakdown and produce off flavors. When consumed, unsaturated fats are oxidized in the body which creates free radicals that cause cell damage and once again…inflammation. 
Besides all of the health benefits associated with my favorite fats I also have to admit that I am most grateful for their flavor. Seriously…why eat something that does not taste good? Try this for a quick meal and a burst of flavor.

Sauteed Greens 
2 strips of bacon
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 minced garlic clove
4 handfuls greens of choice (I prefer kale)
salt/pepper to taste
Chop the bacon and pan fry.  Remove bacon from pan, keeping bacon grease over heat.
Sautee chopped onion and minced garlic in gacon grease until translucent
Add greens and wilt to desired consistency
Season with salt and pepper to taste
Roasted Plantain
1 plantain
1-2 tablespoons coconut oil
salt to taste
Preheat oven to 375-425 degrees
Slice plantain into thin discs
Melt coconut oil
Toss plantain with coconut oil
Season with salt
Roast in oven until it smells good and looks done.  I like mine crispy, so a little brown is best.