How To Get Enough Calcium Without Eating Dairy Products

There is more calcium in the body than any other mineral, and it has several important functions.

Calcium is a very important mineral in human metabolism, making up about 1-2% of an adult human’s body weight.

How much calcium do we really need?

Many parents, including me, find that toddlers on solid foods easily develop a pretty severe dairy allergy.

I considered taking a calcium supplement, but then I decided to research it first since I was still nursing. I was glad I did, because what I found surprised me!

I found that many people are allergic or intolerant to dairy. Some estimate said that as many as 6 out of 10 people may have some reaction to dairy. If over half the population may respond negatively in some way, it made me wonder about the biological need for dairy anyway.

It turns out, there are many foods that are just as high (if not higher) in calcium than dairy products. I just had a firmly entrenched idea that ‘dairy=calcium’ thanks to all the ads I saw growing up.

Calcium is one of the most abundant minerals in the human body and while we associate it with bone and tooth health, it is also important for muscle development, healthy blood pressure, and skin health.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium is 1,000 mg for men and 1,200 mg for women per day. But it turns out that it isn’t as simple as that. Not all calcium we consume is absorbed and the amount we need to consume daily varies depending on the source of the calcium.

For instance, about 32-33% of the calcium from dairy products is absorbed. Our body actually needs 300-400 mg of calcium per day, but with dairy, this means we need to consume close to the RDA to get that level with the reduced absorption rate.

Other food sources are more absorbable such as dark leafy greens, bone broth, fish with bones, and even carrots. Some foods like spinach, which is often suggested as a good dietary source of calcium, are only 5% absorbable, which make them a great source of other nutrients, but not a good source of calcium.

Too much calcium?

Overzealous marketing from the dairy industry may have us believe that calcium is a wonder-mineral (it is) and that the more we consume the better (not so much), but in this case, the dose makes the poison.

Consuming too much calcium can lead to increased risk of kidney stones, heart disease and more. Calcium is vital for regulating the body’s pH, but not in the acid/alkaline balance way that has been so popular. 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 food sources and not synthetic supplements or artificially fortified foods. Foods like orange juice, breakfast cereals and many breads and crackers are fortified with calcium and also contribute to calcium consumption (though they are not recommendable).

Confounding factors

Calcium consumption also doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Just because calcium enters the body, it doesn’t mean it is correctly used by the body.

Vitamin D and magnesium are both necessary for the body to use calcium and without these, calcium won’t be absorbed correctly. A study showed that people who were deficient in Vitamin D only absorbed 14% of the calcium from food while those with adequate Vitamin D levels absorbed 58% of the calcium from their food.

Many natural food sources of calcium (like fatty fish with bones in) are also good sources of Vitamin D which is another reason the calcium in these foods is more absorbable.

Calcium and magnesium are both needed by the body, but they must be combined in the proper ratio to be used correctly. Our modern diet is often very high in calcium from synthetic sources and low in sources of magnesium.

The body uses magnesium to convert vitamin D into its active form so that it can be used in calcium absorption. Magnesium is also used in the creation of the hormone calcitonin. This hormone is vital for bone health and keeping calcium in the bones and not in the blood stream, lowering the likelihood of osteoporosis, some forms of arthritis, heart attack and kidney stones.

Vitamin K is also important for calcium synthesis. It helps keep calcium in bones and out of arteries and muscles. K1 is found in dark leafy greens like kale, collard, and Swiss chard, and Vitamin K2 (also called activator) is found in butter from grass fed cows (but not grain fed!), chicken livers and natto.

A diet high in phytic acid (found in grains) can also inhibit proper calcium uptake and use in the body.

Remember: Consuming calcium without magnesium, Vitamin K and Vitamin D is at best ineffective and possibly dangerous.

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