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 them 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.
Even as adults our bones are constantly breaking down and remodeling, 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 signaling, blood clotting, balancing blood pressure, and healthy skin.
When calcium levels in the blood drop, cells called osteoclasts breakdown 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.
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 the declining estrogen levels which play an important 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 to be 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 or 30-50 ng/dl in the U.S.
One study showed that Vitamin D deficiency decreased calcium absorption so that 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, 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 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 maybe coming 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
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.
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 an adrenal stress 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, shift workers will be particularly at risk here.
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.
If you are going to take a supplement you are better off taking 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 the other fat-soluble vitamins like A and K2.
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.
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.
If you have any questions about how to get enough calcium without any dairy leave a comment below.
Michael is head consultant at Planet Naturopath - Functional Medicine and Nutrition Solutions. He is a registered naturopath with the Australian Natural Therapists Association (ANTA) and works with clients from all over the world via video or phone consultations. He is a degree qualified naturopath from the Endeavour College of Natural Medicine in Australia with 18 years of experience. He uses advanced testing methods, nutritional medicine, herbal medicine, and lifestyle advice to help you stay healthy. He is a Kalish Method-trained practitioner that keeps updating his education with Chris Kresser. Michael completed Dr. Terry Wahls practitioner training program, a 12-month program with ongoing training that helps understand the underlying cause and treatment of MS and autoimmune conditions. He keeps up to date with the latest research into health and natural medicine through the Metabolic Fitness Pro course with Dr. Bryan Walsh.