When our third child started to eat solid foods, we found out that he had a pretty severe dairy allergy. It started with bad gas and mucousy stools, then progressed to skin reactions and even worse digestive problems.
Food allergies are common in babies born early, and my son was five weeks premature (that whole story and my other birth stories here).
In response to this new information, I cut dairy out of my diet because I was still breastfeeding my son. Even though I was only eating raw and organic forms of dairy before, I found that I felt much better, I lost weight more quickly, and had smoother skin in response to the dietary change. While I was sad to give up my favorite raw cheeses, was glad to know that my body didn’t tolerate dairy well, either.
While the baby and I felt better without cow’s milk products, there was a new thing to be concerned about: How will we get enough calcium without dairy?
How Much Calcium Do We Need?
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. As we know, it is vital for strong bones and teeth, and it’s also important for muscle development, healthy blood pressure, and skin health.
The recommended daily intake is 1,000 mg of calcium for men and women, and those calcium requirements rise to about 1,200 mg for older adults. Tracking your intake can be tricky because calcium isn’t always properly absorbed — meaning we generally might need to consume more than we think.
For reference, calcium from dairy products is about 30-35% bioavailable. Other calcium-rich foods that are more absorbable than dairy include fish with bones and cooked veggies like bok choy, kale, and broccoli.
Some foods are often suggested as a good dietary source of calcium but are not as absorbable. For example, spinach contains only around 5% of bioavailable calcium.
Middle-of-the-line options are edamame and soy milk (24% bioavailable), white beans (22%), and sesame seeds (21%).
Bottom line: When tracking your calcium intake, it’s important to consider how easily our bodies can absorb the nutrients in different food sources.
Vitamins That Help the Body Absorb Calcium
Another factor to consider in the bioavailability of calcium is the other vitamins you’re getting in your diet.
Vitamin D is required for the proper absorption of calcium, with one study showing that people who were deficient in vitamin D only absorbed 14% of the calcium from food, versus 58% absorption from those with adequate levels. Fortunately, many natural food sources of calcium (like fatty fish) are also good sources of vitamin D.
It’s also important to get enough magnesium, as it helps to convert vitamin D into its active form. Magnesium is also used in the creation of the hormone calcitonin. Calcitonin keeps calcium in the bones and not in the bloodstream, lowering the likelihood of osteoporosis, some forms of arthritis, heart attack, and kidney stones.
Keep in mind though that magnesium must be in the proper ratio to be used correctly. It’s important to be mindful of getting calcium from synthetic sources that are low in magnesium.
Vitamin K is also important for calcium synthesis, as it helps keep calcium in bones and out of arteries and muscles. Great sources include dark leafy greens, grass-fed butter, chicken livers and natto (a form of fermented soybeans).
Aside from getting enough of these nutrients, you may also want to consider limiting the amount of grains you eat. Grains are high in phytic acid, which can inhibit proper calcium uptake.
The bottom line: Calcium is ineffective without magnesium, vitamin K, and vitamin D. Eating too many grains can make calcium absorption more difficult as well.
Why Calcium Supplements Are Not the Answer
Since it seems so complicated to get enough calcium without dairy every day, you might be tempted (like I was) to try calcium supplements. However, it seems like that’s not a great choice. (Here’s why.)
Calcium supplements ups your risk of ingesting too much calcium. This can lead to increased risk of kidney stones, heart disease, and more.
As Chris Kresser explains, supplemental intake of calcium can be problematic, but dietary intake of calcium is considered safe and healthy:
Beyond being ineffective for bone health, calcium supplements are associated with some pretty serious health risks. Studies on the relationship between calcium and cardiovascular disease (CVD) suggest that dietary intake of calcium protects against heart disease, but supplemental calcium may increase the risk. A large study of 24,000 men and women aged 35–64 years published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2012 found that those who used calcium supplements had a 139% greater risk of heart attack during the 11-year study period, while intake of calcium from food did not increase the risk. A meta-analysis of studies involving more than 12,000 participants also published in BMJ found that calcium supplementation increases the risk of heart attack by 31%, stroke by 20% and death from all causes by 9%.
To be safe, calcium should be consumed from real food sources and not synthetic supplements or artificially fortified foods, like orange juice (where the synthetically added amount of calcium just settles to the bottom of the carton anyway).
Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium
While dairy is known to be a good source of calcium, there are many people who are lactose intolerant, allergic, or otherwise sensitive to dairy. In fact, it is estimated that 65% of the human population has a reduced ability to process dairy beyond infanthood.
Fortunately, there are lots of nutritious ways you can get calcium without dairy. Here are some of the best sources of calcium — and they’re all budget-friendly!
Bone broth is a great source of calcium and many other minerals, and it’s so easy to make (but if you’re looking for a store-bought version, I recommend this one!) Broth made from healthy bones also contain amino acids that are great for other areas of your health, including digestion, skin, nervous system and joints.
Broth can be made from chicken, beef, lamb, bison, or even fish bones for just pennies a cup. Slow simmering the bones for long periods is best, as it allows the calcium and other minerals to dissolve into the water. As the Weston A Price Foundation puts it:
Science validates what our grandmothers knew. Rich homemade chicken broths help cure colds. Stock contains minerals in a form the body can absorb easily—not just calcium but also magnesium, phosphorus, silicon, sulphur and trace minerals. It contains the broken down material from cartilage and tendons–stuff like chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine, now sold as expensive supplements for arthritis and joint pain.
Fish With Bones
Fatty fish, especially those with the bones still intact, contain an impressive calcium content, and absorb easily. Canned fish like salmon and sardines are an easy and inexpensive way to get your fill, since the bones become soft and edible during the canning process. Just be sure to buy BPA-free tins and cans whenever possible!
I know, you might have just wrinkled your nose in disgust at the thought of eating whole sardines, but as Diane of Balanced Bites so perfectly put it:
Y’all need to put your big boy or girl pants on, get a tin of wild sardines, grab some sea salt and lemon or hot sauce, and DIG IN.
One six-ounce serving of canned wild salmon has over 110 milligrams of absorbable calcium and canned sardines rank about the same (or higher). Since these foods are also a good source of vitamin D, they enhance digestion of the calcium and make it more usable.
(If you’re curious, I get my salmon and other seafood from Vital Choice, and sardines from Thrive Market (the Thrive Market brand).
Dark, Leafy Greens
Dark leafy greens are another great dietary source of calcium and are probably your best bet if you’re vegan. However, not all leafy greens are created equal. Collard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, kale, and broccoli all ranked high as absorbable sources of calcium.
Dark leafy greens are also great sources of folate, vitamins A, C, E and K, and B-vitamins. Jonathan Bailor, author of The Calorie Myth, is fond of saying that if you make no other changes in your diet, you will see positive results just from adding a few extra servings of green leafy vegetables a day.
If you’re looking for dietary program to follow that doubles (or triples?) your veggie intake, I highly recommend the Wahls Diet Protocol because of her emphasis on vegetables en masse.
Getting Calcium… Without Dairy
Whether you’re allergic to dairy or just trying to avoid it for your own personal health reasons, there are plenty of ways you can get enough calcium without dairy. Supplementing is not necessary! Just make an effort to eat plenty of calcium-rich foods like broth, fish with bones, veggies (especially the green leafy kind), and other healthy sources of fats, protein, Probiotics as part of a varied diet.
While the above suggestions worked great for my family and me, keep in mind that I’m not a doctor and can’t tell you what your individual needs are. Be sure to check in with a health professional to get your nutrient levels checked and to discuss the best calcium sources for you.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Do you eat dairy? Do you try to get your calcium in other ways? Share below!
Discussion (97 Comments)
Thank you, this articul. Our 20 month old so has life threatening dairy, egg and cashew allergies.
I’m very, very interested in what you may have done to help revers your son’s dairy allergy. At what age did he grow out of it?
The new Australian study says that Probiotics can cure nut allergies. You should look it up and try to find a doctor to help with that. Best of luck. -M
I would like to say that I read an article by Kaayla T. Daniel that stated that most bone broths contain very little minerals including calcium. She reports it’s acutally the hydrolized collagen/ gelatin that helps build strong bones. So it might not be accurate to say the bone broth is a good source of calcium although it is probably still good for bone health.
Thanks for commenting on this. The only study of bone broth I know about (and it’s probably the one Daniels cited) came to this conclusion, too. The researchers were actually surprised at how little calcium leached from the bones and that increasing the amount of vinegar added to the broth made little difference in the calcium leaching.
The question I have is how much of those foods should we eat on a daily basis? 1 cup of bone broth? or 1 can of sardines? or 5 cups of green leafy veggies? or all of the above? Thanks!
We make a calcium supplement by grinding the eggshells from our pastured eggs, and adding a bit to smoothies and such.
Any thoughts on whether this counts as food-based or supplementation, healthwise? 😀
I was wondering the same. We raise our own chickens & while I usually feed them back their shells I’d heard of people grinding them up & using them as a calcium supplement. I wonder how effective that is?
Just looking at the nutritional info from the bone broth you linked, the calcium says 0%? I have an 18mo with a dairy allergy and while I love nursing I can’t continue to do it to make sure she is getting calcium. I thought bone broth would be great but the brand you have linked has 0? Seems odd or like misprint.
There’s a lot of great information here! Thanks for getting it out there!
Great information. I am very curious how you reversed your son’s dairy allergy. My son and I also have reactions to dairy.
I am interested as well. My son is sensitive to dairy and allergic to tree nuts and sesame seeds. Has anyone seen an article on reversing allergies?
Did you find a solution? I just discovered that I can drink raw, unpasteurized milk without any ill side effects (stomach cramps and bloating). Not a true allergy, but it definitely stopped me from drinking milk and limiting my dairy consumption. I am blessed to live in a state where I can purchase it.
I have found that the best way to eat sardines is mixed in with a can of salmon or tuna. No one is the wiser.
I’d much rather just eat sardines than any other canned fish, but then again, I have always been a little odd 🙂
I love sardines from a can. I have them for breakfast, 3 x times a week, and pair them with half an avocado, sprinkled with salt and lime juice – never thought about using the lime on the sardines as well!
I love, love this idea. thank you!
Great post! Throughout my pregnancy I’ve made sure to consume leafy greens, sardines, and bone broth to get my calcium since I don’t do dairy. My question is though, how did you heal your child’s dairy allergy? Also I would be really interested in a future post about preventing leaky gut in babies (my baby is due any day). Thanks!
I am extremely interested as well. My daughter has many severe allergies and is 2 with bo improvement so far.
I was allergic to dairy as a little child and grew out of it. Hopefully your child will have that ability. I drank rice milk for the longest time. Maybe until 6 or 7 that I can recall. I didn’t do anything special besides take vitamins, I just grew out of it. But as an adult I have cut out dairy given my blood-type and feel better than ever. I was told that those who are allergic to dairy can consume raw dairy still because its the process pasteurized and homogenized dairy goes through that makes the body react badly to it. Perhaps I’m misinformed…
Maybe thats just a sign that she doesnt need dairy. Happy journey in finding alternatives! avoid SOY! Its bad for us with all the pesticides and fungicides. Soy is so bad for us! carageenan is as well! it does destructive things to our organs. Best I could say is make your own homemade milks. Use 2 day soaked almonds (squeeze skins off to remove arsenic) and use water and honey!:)
Thank you for this article! I live in a village in Papua New Guinea and don’t have access to fresh dairy! I am 8 weeks pregnant and have been trying to make sure I am getting the right amount of calcium from good sources. I really appreciate the help. Your other articles have also been very helpful and I’m taking full advantage of all the wonderful coconuts we have around here! Thanks again.
I was suffering from GERD, and after too long taking the PPI’s that didn’t really help me much I realized I needed to improve my diet. I now eat all the leafy greens I can grow. I especially like and consume lots of collards. I also eat homemade yogurt and other lacto-fermented foods. I cut out most wheat, which was my worst trigger for GERD, and coffee. I am now almost completely GERD free–I need to completely quit the homemade whole wheat bread. I have just started making bone broth, and I look forward to the benefits I will gain from it. There is no doubt in my mind that I am finally consuming the right kinds of foods. This is a way of preparing, preserving, and eating foods that my grandparents enjoyed. (My mother thought margarine was better than butter and eschewed fermented food in favor of canned foods–she hated vegetables anyway.) It was a challenge for me to finally get this right.