Calcium, we’re made of the stuff. This is the most abundant mineral in our bodies, and almost all of it is in our bones and teeth. The rest is used for other important functions like regulating our heart, enabling the contraction of our muscles, the clotting of our blood, and the release of neurotransmitters. There are two common concerns regarding calcium that come up all the time with clients in my clinic, and I want to address them here. The first is the question of how to get enough calcium when on a dairy-free diet. The second is about supplementing with calcium- is it safe? There is good news on both fronts! Read on to find out more.
Factors that may contribute to low calcium levels:
(Due to an increased need for calcium, increased depletion/excretion of calcium, or reduced ingestion/absorption of calcium)
- High intakes of refined sugar or salt (increases excretion of calcium)
- High protein and high-phosphate diets (such as in meat and fizzy drinks)
- Caffeine consumption
- Alcohol consumption
- Low stomach acid (reduces absorption of calcium)
- Increased periods of growth (babies, children, young adults)
- High blood pressure
- Colon cancer
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease
- Low calcium diets
- Diuretic use
Dairy-free diets: other awesome calcium foods
In the land of Dairy, it can be hard for many people to accept that there are food sources of calcium that don’t come from cows! It is not at all uncommon for infants, children and adults to be in some way reactive to dairy foods. Some can tolerate a little but not a lot. Some can have cheese but not milk. Some are really best without any of it, at least for a time. Symptoms of reactivities to dairy vary from skin reactions to digestive upsets to immune problems. If in doubt, it is always worth either testing, or experimenting with cutting it completely out of your diet for a minimum of 4 weeks.
And if you are cutting out dairy, or cutting down, it is really important to understand what other good food sources of calcium are. Especially, of course, if you are a growing child or a pregnant or breastfeeding woman.
The very best way to get enough calcium in your diet, if you’re not having dairy, is to eat an eclectic mix of nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, fish and vegetables. Non-dairy sources often provide calcium that is actually more easily absorbed than that in dairy, kale being a prime example.
Below is a list of foods with high calcium levels. Most of them you won’t make a meal of on their own, but can include in your meals, and mix and match them to make a calcium-rich nourishing bowl of deliciousness.
Vegetables: Especially dark green leafy ones like kale. Kale kale kale. Ah yes it really is that good for you, and very easy to grow, so pop some in the garden. Broccoli is also rich in calcium. Watercress is a phenomenal calcium source.
Herbs & Seasonings: Parsley is a fabulous source of both Calcium and Iron, and also Vitamin C- make a pesto and slather it on everything! If you’re in a foraging sort of mood and don’t mind a little bit of bitter, dandelion leaves are full of minerals including calcium, and can be made into pesto too. Kelp is also high in calcium, and can be sprinkled on food as a seasoning- it is also naturally high in iodine. Other seaweeds are also high in calcium and other minerals, especially wakame & hijiki but even nori (the one you have wrapped around your sushi!). Brewer’s Yeast is high in calcium, B vitamins and Chromium, and is a lovely savoury seasoning to sprinkle on soups etc. It is also used as the savoury base in vegan pesto or ‘cheese’ recipes. Blackstrap molasses is high in calcium and iron; great in baking or porridge! Dried wheatgrass and Barley grass are great added to smoothies as a source of calcium.
Fish: Sardines in oil (tinned) are an especially good choice for their high calcium levels. Fish with bones in them, that you actually eat, are great for calcium. Canned salmon is also good for this reason.
Nuts & Seeds: Sesame seeds, and the butter made from them, tahini, are very high in calcium, especially the unhulled variety. Almonds are high in calcium and magnesium. Sunflower seeds are high in calcium and zinc. Brazil nuts offer good calcium. Nut butters are a great way to boost your calcium levels. Chia seeds are also exceptionally high in calcium, and also omega-3 oils. Quinoa is treated more like a grain, as this is how we cook it- it is high in calcium and protein, as is its tiny cousin Amaranth.
Beans & Legumes: Tofu and soy products are high in calcium. White beans are also naturally good sources. Chick peas have good amounts too.
Drinks: Carob is surprisingly high in calcium, so hot carob drinks with honey might be a welcome night-cap!
Fruits: Dried figs are calcium-rich, make a yummy snack and can be used in trail-mixes or in baking. A fresh orange can also provide a nice little serve of calcium.
Osteoporosis & Osteomalacia
While most people have heard of osteoporosis (which means ‘porous bone’), not many have heard of osteomalacia (softening of the bone). Osteomalacia is more directly linked to low calcium than osteoporosis. Most women know that after menopause, our bones are at a greater risk due to low oestrogen. Oestrogen helps keep our bones strong. We will write a whole post on osteoporosis soon, as it warrants some discussion! In the meantime, it is enough to say that osteoporosis is about far more than just low calcium. While calcium supplementation can help reduce bone loss, it is only one factor of many that can contribute to bone strength.
Food for thought 1: Vegetarians and even vegans have a lower incidence of osteoporosis than meat eaters. Food for thought 2: Breastfeeding reduces your risk of osteoporosis. Both of these facts show that commonly held assumptions about bone health (ie. that you need to eat huge quantities of dairy, or that breastfeeding will leach minerals from your bones) aren’t necessarily true. Bone health is a complex issue. As we said, we’ll talk on this more in an upcoming post!
Bones: Its not just about calcium. Other nutrients are also important for absorbing and utilising calcium. Magnesium and Vitamin D are both essential for calcium to be deposited into bones. Without enough magnesium, for example, your can become deficient in calcium even if you are eating plenty of it! Phosphorus, Boron, Zinc and Vitamins A & C are also important. This is why foods that have a balance of minerals and vitamins provide a good source of calcium alongside its other co-factors.
“Don’t Supplement!”: Many clients have been expressing concerns to me about whether it is safe for them to take calcium supplements after some media reports in the past few years have claimed it can increase risks of heart disease. Like many things in life, the truth is complicated. Actually, you can supplement, but only if you need to, and only if you choose the right supplements. There are multiple studies that support the use of calcium supplementation in post-menopausal women to prevent bone loss, and further to prevent hip fractures. Recently a study outlined a potential link between calcium supplementation and an increased risk of cardiovascular events in both men and women. More research is needed however, as a huge meta-analysis designed to further investigate this claim showed that actually there was no proof that calcium supplementation contributed to increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
As ever, it pays to look at what form of calcium you take, as the forms that are easier to absorb and utilise potentially have less risk of side effects. The best form of calcium to take as a supplement is one that is chelated, for example calcium citrate. Calcium hydroxyappetite is also a good form. Ideally calcium should be taken with other nutrients such as Magnesium, Boron and Vitamin D.
Tips for increasing calcium in your diet (non-dairy)
- Add nuts and seeds to all salads, pastas, rice dishes etc.
- Have a scroggin/trail mix on hand at all times for nutty seedy figgy snacks- in the car, in your handbag, in your desk drawer.
- Make up a wild weed pesto every week for use on toast, crackers, with pastas or rice dishes. Use parsley, dandelion greens, sunflower seeds, garlic, olive oil, S&P and lemon zest.
- Have a chia pudding; make by mixing ¼ cup chia seeds with 1 cup of your choice of milk (coconut is yummy), sweeteners such as maple syrup are optional, as is vanilla. Refrigerate overnight and have with fresh fruit for breakfast or dessert.
- Use nut/seed butters on everything, or make protein ball snacks that contain nut butters.
- Have a dark leafy green salad every day with mixed steamed or raw greens, almonds, and a tahini dressing.
- Top this salad with a tin of sardines or salmon for an easy lunch, or with half a can of cannelini beans or ½ slab of marinated tofu if you’re vegetarian.
- Add 1-2T of LSA (Ground Linseed, Sunflower and Almond mix) to breakfast or smoothie.
Ideally, we can get enough calcium through our diet. A wholefood diet rich in dark green veggies, nuts and seeds will see us right if we are thoughtful. When we need to, supplements are available, but again we must be thoughtful and consider if this is necessary and if so, which supplement to choose. Whatever we do, it is also important to address the things in our life that deplete calcium: coffee, alcohol, salt, sugar, meat! As in all things health, it is about finding our own right balance. Listening to your gut is one thing, but what do you feel in your bones?