Georgina Young shows us that we don’t have to drink dairy milks or eat cheese to get our required fix of calcium…
You need milk to form strong bones. Right? At least that’s what the majority of us were led to believe while growing up.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral found within our bodies, making up a huge 1-2% of our body weight. Calcium is responsible for helping to form strong bones and teeth, regulating the heartbeat and other muscle contractions, supporting the nervous system, and it even ensures that our blood clots properly.
I’m sure you’d agree that calcium is pretty amazing stuff, and it’s safe to say that without it we wouldn’t be able to survive. But does it really matter if your calcium comes from dairy?
With healthy living on the rise, we are seeing an increase in ethical, vegan, or paleolithic ways of eating, where dairy is often eschewed. For others, avoiding dairy is a matter of necessity due to being dairy or lactose intolerant. But are these plant-based and dairy-free ways of eating doing people more harm than good? Can you really consume enough calcium on a 100% plant-based diet or without consuming any dairy at all? In order to answer these questions we firstly need to explore how much calcium the human body needs in order to thrive.
So, how much calcium do we really need?
The NHS recommends that adults consume at least 700mg, but no more than 1500mg calcium per day. A lack of dietary calcium can lead to a condition known as ‘rickets’ within children, where the bones become soft and weak leading to skeletal deformities and dental problems. 99% calcium that is stored within our bodies is actually stored in our teeth and bones. In adults, a calcium-deficient diet can cause the body to extract the calcium from your bone tissue, thus accelerating bone loss – otherwise known as osteoporosis.
Too much calcium however can cause problems of its own – starting with mild complications such as stomach pain and diarrhoea, but an overdose in calcium can also lead to far more serious problems such as; an increased risk of kidney stones, heart disease and many others. It is always best to never exceed 1500mg calcium a day.
But the fact of the matter is, we actually only need around a mere 300-400mg absorbed calcium per day from dietary sources. So why do recommendations state otherwise?
Dairy just isn’t what it used to be. The dairy on our supermarket shelves today is pasteurised, homogenised, and no longer raw, meaning the majority of the original calcium and vitamin content of the milk is rendered pretty much insoluble by the body.
When we consume pasteurised dairy our bodies only absorb around 30% of the calcium content. Plant-based sources of calcium on the other hand, are actually found to have a higher bioavailability (rate of absorbability) within the body than dairy does. This is largely due to the higher vitamin and mineral content within these foods. It is these vitamins and minerals that help to support the absorption of calcium into the body.
But how do our bodies absorb calcium?
In order for our bodies to absorb calcium adequately, we require a good source of magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K. This is often why you find vitamin D added to calcium supplements, fortified cereals and drinks.
Magnesium is utilised by our bodies in order to convert vitamin D into its active form, a prohormone called calcidiol, allowing it to be converted further and used for calcium absorption within the body. Dark leafy greens and nuts and seeds are all fantastic non-dairy sources of magnesium.
Vitamin D however is a little harder to obtain just through dietary sources alone. Although mushrooms can help, there are two other ways to obtain vitamin D; through sunlight and supplementation.
Last but not least, vitamin K has also been found to be important for calcium synthesis and bone and arterial health. Unlike most vitamins it exists in two forms; vitamin K1 and K2. Vitamin K1 can be found in dark leafy greens and vegetables, while vitamin K2 can be found in fermented foods such as raw sauerkraut and fermented soy beans.
If you eat a high amount of grains, legumes and pulses in your diet, be aware that phytates from these foods can leech the vitamin and mineral content. Always pre-soak these foods overnight in a solution of salty water before rinsing and consuming.
The best non-dairy sources of calcium
Chowing down on a sweet and sticky treat that is good for you is everyone’s dream. A whopping 3.4mg calcium can be found per dried fig – that’s around 107mg in eight whole dried figs. Figs are also high in fibre, iron, potassium, magnesium, selenium and vitamin K. Dried figs are perfect in raw desserts or chopped into tagine dishes and salads.
Chia seeds are one of the quickest and easiest foods to obtain your daily dose of calcium from. They’re high in protein, phosphorous and manganese, and are also the richest plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. Chia seeds are best enjoyed sprinkled over your morning smoothie bowl, added to your protein shake post workout, and of course as the classic chia pudding!
Raw tahini and sesame seeds
Just 1 tablespoon of raw tahini contains 63mg calcium. It’s also high in protein, thiamin, omega 6, phosphorous, copper and manganese. If you find tahini a little too strong for your taste, then try adding 1 tablespoon sesame seeds to your salads and stir fries for an extra 87.8mg of calcium.
In just 28g almonds you’ll find 74.6mg calcium and the ever so popular almond butter totes 168.75mg calcium per ¼ cup. Almonds are also high in vitamin E, niacin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, iron, zinc, copper and manganese and are high in omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. So bin those fortified cereals and drinks and get your daily dose of almond joy!
It’s no secret that seaweed is packed full of minerals and trace elements – vitamins, antioxidants, amino acids, and protein – but did you know that just 100g kelp contains 168mg of calcium? If you find seaweed hard to stomach, try adding a tablespoon of dried spirulina to your green juice – with 8.4mg of calcium, it’s sure to give you a little boost.
Kale was touted as the number one superfood last year, and that’s no surprise. With 137mg in just 1 cup of raw, chopped kale (and 93.6mg per cup when cooked) a little kale in your day will certainly boost your calcium levels. Kale is also high in vitamins C and K, magnesium, copper and manganese. Enjoy tossed into salads, baked into crispy kale chips, or in green juices.
Blackstrap molasses is a by-product of the refining process of cane sugar, and has the lowest sugar content of all cane sugar produce. Just 1 tablespoon contains a hefty 172mg of calcium! Blackstrap molasses is also high in vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, and manganese. Enjoy it mixed into tahini, or simply stirred into a warm glass of your favourite nut milk.
About the author: Georgie is a freelance writer and recipe developer who specialises in nutrition, fitness, and health and well-being. She enjoys sharing her passion for cooking, Paleofying food, and exploring Veganism within the Paleo diet on her blog, Greens of the Stone Age, and along the way has helped many friends to take a more holistic approach to their hectic lifestyles. She has further expanded upon her love of the Paleo way of living by setting up Primal Eye Magazine – the UK’s 1st online Paleo lifestyle magazine! www.greensofthestoneage.com