How to Get Enough Calcium Without Dairy

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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

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!

  1. Chesnut III, C. H., Silverman, S., Andriano, K., Genant, H., Gimona, A., Harris, S., … & Moniz, C. (2000). A randomized trial of nasal spray salmon calcitonin in postmenopausal women with established osteoporosis: the prevent recurrence of osteoporotic fractures study. The American Journal of Medicine, 109(4), 267-276.
  2. Curhan, G. C., Willett, W. C., Rimm, E. B., & Stampfer, M. J. (1993). A prospective study of dietary calcium and other nutrients and the risk of symptomatic kidney stones. New England Journal of Medicine, 328(12), 833-838.
  3. Hsu, D. J., Lee, C. W., Tsai, W. C., & Chien, Y. C. (2017). Essential and toxic metals in animal bone broths. Food & Nutrition Research, 61(1), 1347478.
  4. Lansdown, A. B. (2002). Calcium: a potential central regulator in wound healing in the skin. Wound repair and regeneration, 10(5), 271-285.
  5. Lönnerdal, B. O., Sandberg, A. S., Sandström, B., & Kunz, C. (1989). Inhibitory effects of phytic acid and other inositol phosphates on zinc and calcium absorption in suckling rats. The Journal of nutrition, 119(2), 211-214.
  6. Lucas, A., Brooke, O. G., Cole, T. J., Morley, R., & Bamford, M. F. (1990). Food and drug reactions, wheezing, and eczema in preterm infants. Archives of disease in childhood, 65(4), 411-415.
  7. Malde, M. K., Bügel, S., Kristensen, M., Malde, K., Graff, I. E., & Pedersen, J. I. (2010). Calcium from salmon and cod bone is well absorbed in young healthy men: a double-blinded randomised crossover design. Nutrition & metabolism, 7(1), 61.
  8. on Diet, C., & National Research Council. (1989). Minerals. In Diet and Health: Implications for Reducing Chronic Disease Risk. National Academies Press (US).
  9. Polonsky, T. S., McClelland, R. L., Jorgensen, N. W., Bild, D. E., Burke, G. L., Guerci, A. D., & Greenland, P. (2010). Coronary artery calcium score and risk classification for coronary heart disease prediction. Jama, 303(16), 1610-1616.
  10. Siebecker, A. (2005). Traditional bone broth in modern health and disease. Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, (259-260), 74-82.
  11. Titchenal, C. A., & Dobbs, J. (2007). A system to assess the quality of food sources of calcium. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, 20(8), 717-724.
  12. Wasserman, R. H. (2004). Vitamin D and the dual processes of intestinal calcium absorption. The Journal of nutrition, 134(11), 3137-3139

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Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


99 responses to “How to Get Enough Calcium Without Dairy”

  1. Alexander Avatar

    I don’t have access to Thrive – is there a different brand of sardines you can recommend? Or what else should I look for when buying canned sardines, where should they be caught?

  2. Rayna Hawley Avatar
    Rayna Hawley

    There is no need to only consume the bones from canned fish. I have been giving my dairy-intolerant son some of the soft bones from homemade bone broth in his blended food. He is special needs and has swallowing issues. His bone density and teeth are good, even without weight bearing. After seeing the same recommendation from Dr. Paul Saladino, I’ve been doing the same while nursing another dairy intolerant baby.

  3. deb Avatar

    the bone broth you mentioned only has 2% calcium- not really a great source of calcium

  4. Libby Avatar

    What did you transition your kids to drinking when weaning? I’ve never liked the idea of transitioning them to dairy (for various reasons), but would like to know your thoughts on what a good alternative is that has adequate nutrition.

  5. Maria Avatar

    Hi. The Kettle & Fire Bone Broths you recommend only contain 2-4% of the DV for calcium per cup, so they are not a great source of calcium. I agree though, there are many other good food sources where you can meet all of your calcium needs without having cow’s milk dairy!

    1. Maggie Avatar

      I would love to know your thoughts on what Libby asked also! Once your kiddos were older than 1 and you had weaned, did you give them a “milk” (whole milk, nut milk, pea milk, etc.) Lots of conflicting info on this topic.

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