Getting Enough Calcium Without Consuming Dairy Foods
If I do not eat animal foods, including dairy products, is it possible to get enough calcium through plant foods?
Yes. With a little attention to your diet, you can get enough calcium to meet your needs, even if you do not use dairy foods. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) varies from 1000−1300 milligrams (mg)/day, depending on your age and gender. Teens 9−18 years of age need the most calcium (1300 mg), and women older than 51 years of age come in a close second, needing 1200 mg. Other adults require 1000 mg/day.
Calcium has many functions in the body. One of its most important roles is in keeping your bones healthy. If you do not use dairy foods, it is important to use care when deciding what you eat and drink to assure that your body is getting the right nutrition for good health.
What are good sources of calcium that do not come from animal sources?
Many vegetables are good sources of calcium, including:
- Broccoli—45 mg for ½ cup (C), cooked
- Kale—100 mg for ½ C, cooked
- Spinach—120 mg for ½ C, cooked
- Pinto beans—about 45 mg for ½ C
- Kidney beans—about 40 mg for ½ C
Should I use calcium-fortified foods?
Yes. Calcium-fortified foods, such as soy milk, tofu, orange and other juices, cereal, and bread products, can help make it easier to meet your calcium needs without using animal foods. Most fortified foods contain between 200−300 mg calcium/serving, but always check the food label to find out exactly how much calcium the fortified food contains.
How do I know my body will absorb the calcium I eat?
Vitamin D will help your body absorb the calcium you eat. These two nutrients work together to keep your bones healthy. Make sure you get plenty of vitamin D (see next question) to help your body absorb the calcium in your diet. The RDA for vitamin D varies from 600 international units (IU)/day for individuals 14−70 years of age to 800 IU/day for adults 71 years of age and older.
Calcium absorption also is affected by phytic acid and oxalic acid, which are found naturally in some plant foods. These tend to bind to calcium, preventing the body from absorbing it. Spinach, collard greens, sweet potatoes, rhubarb, and beans are examples of foods containing calcium that the body may not absorb as well because of phytic or oxalic acid.
What foods are good sources of vitamin D?
Foods fortified with vitamin D are the best way to get enough vitamin D in your diet. Fortified milk and breakfast cereals are two common sources. A 8-fl-ounce serving of milk has about 100 IUs of vitamin D, and ¾ C serving of some cereals has 40 IUs. Other sources include fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna (200−360 IU/serving). You might find it challenging to get enough vitamin D in the diet if you do not use animal or dairy foods.
Vitamin D also is obtained by exposure to sunlight, because it is made in the skin. Exposure of 10−15 minutes at least two times weekly to the face, arms, hands, or back without sunscreen is enough to provide adequate vitamin D. If you do not eat animal foods and do not spend much time outside, a vitamin D supplement is a good idea.
What other dietary factors can affect the amount of calcium in my bones?
Studies are conflicting about the use of sodium and protein, and how it may affect your bone health. Some studies say large amounts of both can increase calcium excretion in the urine and cause your bones to absorb less calcium. Until more is known about these relationships, it is suggested that you limit protein to two to three servings/day and sodium to 1500−2300 mg/day for overall good health.
Alcohol can reduce the amount of calcium your body absorbs, and caffeine may increase the amount your body loses through urine. For those reasons, limiting your intake of both alcohol and caffeine makes sense to help keep your bones healthy.
Should I take a calcium supplement?
Perhaps. If you do not pay close attention to getting enough calcium, you might benefit from a supplement. If you use calcium supplements, make sure to select one that includes vitamin D. A registered dietitian can give you more information about whether or not supplements are needed based on your eating habits.
References and recommended readings
Institute of Medicine. Dietary reference intakes for calcium and vitamin D.
Available at: http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2010/Dietary-Reference-Intakes-for-Calcium-and-Vitamin-D.aspx.
Accessed June 3, 2011.
National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary supplement fact sheet: calcium.
Available at: http://dietary-supplements.info.nih.gov/factsheets/calcium.asp.
Accessed April 27, 2011.
Weaver CM, Proulx WR, Heaney R. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. Am J Clin Nutr [serial online]. 1999;70(suppl 3):543S-548S.
Review Date 4/11