It’s Not About Demonizing Dairy: Alternative Calcium Sources

Calcium doesn’t just come from cows. Here are three other fantastic and healthy sources.

If you think milk is the only way to get bone-building calcium into your diet, then put down that glass and listen up.

Non-dairy calcium? You’ve got to be cow-dding me!

I am not here to demonize dairy, though I do have some strong opinions about the dairy industry. I do think that high-quality dairy from happy, healthy cows does carry some big health benefits for those of us who aren’t allergic or intolerant.

What I take issue with is the fact that many of us, myself included, were raised to believe that dairy is our only source of calcium and it just isn’t true. Today, I am going to share with you three of my favorite non-dairy sources of calcium and some truly tasty ways to include them in your diet.

First of All, Why Do We Need Calcium?

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our body, found mostly in bones and teeth, but also in nerve cells, tissues, blood, and other body fluids. Calcium’s major role is the growth and maintenance of strong bones and teeth, but it also plays a role in heart and muscle function, nerve signaling, and the release of hormones and other chemicals into our bloodstream.

“By including a wide variety of foods, we can better ensure we are getting everything we need to live a long, vibrant life.”

To keep your bones in tip-top shape you need adequate dietary calcium along with regular weight-bearing exercise. If you are still growing, pregnant, lactating, or elderly, you are going to need more calcium than most, so it is extra important you pay attention to getting at least the recommended daily allowance. The baseline is 1,000mg per day for adult men and 1,200mg per day for women, with other varying numbers for the populations I just mentioned.

How much calcium your body absorbs is just as important as how much you consume. Alcohol, caffeine, and refined sugar can deplete the body’s calcium stores, leaving you at risk. On the flip side, foods high in vitamin D and/or magnesium can aid in calcium absorption.

Because whole foods contain a varied and diverse set of nutrients, many of the calcium-rich foods we’ll be discussing are also good sources of these other vitamins and minerals. You can also pair these with bananas, avocados, nuts and seeds, egg yolks, liver or cod liver oil, and plenty of sunlight for a calcium-absorbing boost.

bones, skeleton

Consuming adequate calcium ensures the maintenence of strong, healthy bones.

Catch of the Day

Let’s start with my favorite – fish! Not just any fish, though. Look for wild-caught fatty fish, specifically salmon or sardines, canned with the skin and bones. I like to get them packed in water or olive oil. Just be sure to read the label for any nasty additives or preservatives.

It makes sense that you would only want to get the varieties that are canned with the bones because that’s where all the calcium is stored. I promise the bones are tiny and soft, and you’ll barely notice them once everything is mixed together. One 3oz serving of sardines with the bones contains 325mg of calcium and the same serving size of canned salmon contains 181mg. I don’t know about you, but I typically eat more than just a 3oz serving, especially after a good workout, so I know I am getting a meal’s worth of calcium right there.

“Consider a spoonful of almond butter in your smoothie or a sprinkle of crushed almonds on your salad.”

Many people eat salmon and sardines straight from the can, but if you can’t stand that fishy smell, I have a couple of creative ways for you to get your seafood calcium boost:

1. Substitute canned salmon (drained) in your favorite chicken salad or crab cake recipe. The texture is similar and the spices usually mask the flavor a bit. If you are ready to take it to the next level, toss in a few canned sardines for a little extra punch.

2. For a quick-and-easy lunch, stir up a 14oz can of salmon with half an avocado or a quarter-cup of mayonnaise (I recommend Primal Kitchen Mayo), 1Tbsp curry powder, some shredded carrots, diced apples, pumpkin seeds, salt, and pepper. The curry flavor will really shine through and the pumpkin seeds give it a nice crunch. Serve over cucumber slices, romaine leaves, or scoop it up with plantain chips. Yum!

Get Your Greens

Dark leafy greens are another excellent source of calcium. Kale, broccoli, bok choy, turnip greens, you get the picture. Chopped kale tops the list with about 100mg of calcium in one cup, while broccoli provides 21mg per half cup. Adding these foods throughout the day, though, can really add up. Try stirring in some finely chopped kale as you scramble your eggs or throwing some fresh bok choy and broccoli into your next stir-fry.

greens, garden greens, leafy greens

Leafy greens are an easy way to include more calcium in your daily diet.

Be Nutty

This one might surprise you, but some nuts and seeds are actually pretty decent sources of calcium. Almonds contain the highest level of calcium, coming in at 75mg per 1oz serving (about a handful). Consider a spoonful of almond butter in your smoothie or a sprinkle of crushed almonds on your salad. Or, how about a calcium-rich trail mix with raisins and dried figs, which also carry a bit of calcium?

Non-Dairy Calcium Is Always An Option

See, it really is simple to find calcium from many sources besides dairy. For the many people who can’t or just choose not to consume dairy, it is vitally important you work foods like these into your diet.

Even if you do consume dairy, I always preach variety as part of a whole-foods diet. Every single food has a unique nutrient profile, supplying the various macronutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that our body needs. By including a wide variety of foods, we can better ensure we are getting everything we need to live a long, vibrant life.

Check out these related articles:


1. National Institutes of Health, Calcium in the Diet, (2013), last accessed on May 18, 2015.

2. National Institutes of Health, Calcium Fact Sheet for Consumers, (2013), last accessed on May 18, 2015.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.