Calcium Without Any Dairy? 3 Tips To Boost Levels Now

Calcium without dairy

Many common health problems like digestion issues, skin health, migraines/ headaches, PMS, autoimmune conditions and much more can be influenced by the foods that we eat.

Including dairy! But can you get enough calcium without any dairy in your diet?

As a Naturopath, I commonly recommend that people try a 30-day program that eliminates the common foods that can trigger these health issues, like gluten, preservatives, processed foods and dairy.

One of the biggest concerns is how people are going to get enough calcium without dairy!

Sometimes, even after doing the 30-day challenge and feeling fantastic or the best they have felt in years, people will still wonder if they can maintain good bone health in the long term without dairy.

Or their friends question how they can survive without this essential food.

This may be especially true if you have osteoporosis or a family history of osteoporosis, and these are valid reasons why you should be concerned about your bone health.

So if you feel better about cutting out dairy, let's explore how you can get enough calcium without any dairy, and what other nutrients might also be valuable for healthy bones.

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Do You Really Need To Avoid Dairy?

The short answer for many people is "no", many people tolerate dairy just fine but if you feel better for eliminating dairy over a 30-day period, and then you feel worse for adding it back in then you may want to consider avoiding dairy.

However, you may want to check if you are lactose intolerant, if this is the case you maybe able to consume low-lactose sources of dairy like hard cheeses and not have any symptoms.

You can also get lactose-free milk and yogurt which should be fine if you are simply lacking the enzymes needed to digest lactose, as this is the main cause of lactose intolerance.

If you find that you are reacting to all dairy, including cheeses then you may have an issue with casein, this is the protein in dairy and is more likely to cause a dairy allergy or dairy intolerance.

It is often people with autoimmune conditions, chronic inflammation or migraines that need to avoid all dairy, while people with digestive issues likely have lactose intolerance and can just avoid lactose.

The good news is there is a lot of calcium rich foods which don't include drinking cow's milk or eating dairy to get your daily calcium requirements.

Why your body needs calcium

Even as adults, our bones are constantly breaking down and remodelling; this process can either make our bones stronger or weaker depending on our diet and lifestyle

This is why diet and strength training is so important for strong bones.

Our bones are our body's storage unit for calcium; the body tightly regulates calcium levels in our bloodstream.

This provides calcium for important physiological functions such as muscle contraction, nerve signalling, blood clotting, balancing blood pressure, and healthy skin.

When calcium levels in the blood drop, cells called osteoclasts break down the bone tissue to release calcium into the bloodstream, and when calcium levels in the blood are optimal, cells called osteoblasts will add the extra calcium into the bone for storage.

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Foods rich in Calcium

Osteoporosis

Once you reach the age of 50, bone disorders become increasingly common. One in every two women and one in every four men will break a bone due to osteoporosis.

Women are at higher risk due to declining estrogen levels which play an essential role in bone health.

It's not just about calcium for healthy bones; the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K are all important for healthy bones and being able to absorb calcium from your diet.

Vitamin D comes from the sun, and I often find that people are low in Vitamin D because they avoid the sun, work indoors, or have a genetic issue with absorbing Vitamin D.

Vitamin D levels should be a minimum of 90-120 nmol/l, which is the metric target for Australia/ Europe or 50-70 ng/dl in the U.S.

One study showed that Vitamin D deficiency decreased calcium absorption so only 14% of calcium was absorbed compared to 58% for people with healthy Vitamin D levels.

Vitamin A is found in good supply in liver, and this may be the best source but not to everyone's taste, so other sources include bone broth, eggs, and cod liver oil.

Vitamin K1 is found in leafy green vegetables, but Vitamin K2, which is more important to bone health, is found in grass-fed fats like butter, ghee, liver, and meats from grass-fed animals. Vitamin K2 is also found in fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi.

Magnesium is also another important factor in bone health and the absorption of calcium, studies show that people are often low in magnesium.

Low magnesium is especially true if you are under stress, whether this is emotional stress or physical stress from pain or injury.

Inflammation and dairy

Inflammation can affect the breakdown of bone and increase the need for more calcium, the best solution is not to add more calcium but to reduce inflammation.

The inflammation may come from the diet in the form of gluten, processed foods, or dairy …. yes dairy, a recent 20-year Swedish study published in the British Medical Journal looked at the milk intake of two large cohorts involving 61,433 women and 45,339 men.

The results showed that high milk intake was associated with

  • higher mortality in both men and women
  • higher fracture incidence in women

While a high milk intake is usually recommended for the prevention of osteoporotic fractures, studies are showing that chronic exposure to the D-galactose in milk may actually be having negative effects on our bodies.

Experimental evidence shows that the damage from even a low dose of D-galactose may create oxidative stress damage, chronic inflammation, neurological degeneration, decreased immune response and gene changes.

Milk is the main dietary source of D-galactose.

Plus the quality of dairy that is available on supermarket shelves is a lot different to real cows' milk straight from the farm.

Stress

Long-term use of corticosteroid medication has been shown to affect bone health, but also high levels of cortisol, our natural “stress hormone,” can be catabolic to bone health and lead to osteoporosis.

This does not have to be just from emotional stress or work stress, but it can be dietary stress or pain and inflammation. A good way to test your cortisol levels is through the DUTCH Hormone test.

Sleep or lack of it will also be a stress on your body and affect bone health; in fact, research shows that poor sleep can affect your health in so many ways, from weight gain to hormonal problems.

Sleep affects the health of your bones through the hormonal effect of melatonin; getting adequate levels of melatonin at night is particularly important for good quality sleep, but melatonin also helps to stimulate bone growth, so shift workers will be particularly at risk here.

Calcium Without Dairy - Food Sources of calcium

The marketing of dairy has made it seem like it is impossible to get enough calcium in the diet without consuming dairy products.

However, there are plenty of calcium rich foods that are non-dairy foods. So improving calcium without dairy is possible if you find that your lactose intolerant, or have a dairy allergy.

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Vegetarian sources of calcium

  • dark green leafy vegetables
  • orange juice, especially fortified orange juice which has calcium added
  • soy milk, and also there is fortified soy milk with extra calcium
  • rice milk and other milk substitutes
  • sesame seeds and tahini
  • Chia Seeds
  • Cruciferous vegetables
  • Breakfast cereals (though often not the best choice because of high sugar)
  • Dried figs
  • White beans and other legumes

Other Sources of Calcium

  • Canned Salmon, especially canned fish that includes bones
  • Canned sardines and fatty fish like sardines and salmon are also high in essential fatty acids
  • Mackerel
  • Bone broth
  • If you don't like fish then the best sources of calcium foods are going to be the vegetarian options

Calcium Without Any Dairy – Supplements

Calcium is a very popular supplement to take “just in case” as insurance so that you do not get osteoporosis, but recent large studies have linked calcium supplementation to heart disease, and the evidence is not great that it prevents osteoporosis.

This may be due to many cheaper calcium supplements using calcium carbonate in their products which is a poorly absorbed form of calcium. Or it could be because many people are low in vitamin D or lack other vitamins and minerals to prevent osteoporosis.

If you are going to take a calcium supplement, you should also take magnesium which is deficient in many people and will help you absorb more of the calcium that you get from food. Other supplements that may be useful are Vitamin D (only if your levels are low) and other fat-soluble vitamins like A and K2.

If you are going to take calcium supplements, then I would recommend going for calcium citrate as the preferred source for better calcium absorption. Aiming for around 500 mg of calcium, some people may require more depending on their diet or health requirements.

Summary

Many cultures from around the world have survived for thousands of years on a diet that does not include dairy and with no calcium-deficient symptoms like osteoporosis.

If you eat a real food diet, which is nutrient-dense and full of all the co-factors for calcium absorption, then you should not need to supplement.

Avoid inflammatory foods like gluten and processed foods, if you have eliminated dairy for a month and then re-introduced it without any issues or symptoms, then you may be able to tolerate small amounts of good quality dairy in your diet.

If you do regular exercise, particularly strength training or high-intensity interval training this will also help to strengthen your bones. This lack of exercise, and in particular a lack of strength training maybe the biggest contributing factor to osteopenia or osteoporosis as we age.

Practice stress reduction and get good quality sleep each night, this will help reduce the breakdown of bones as well as help with nutrient absorption.

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