12 Milk-Free Sources of Calcium

How to meet your calcium needs when you can't have dairy

tofu and broccoli
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Most of us know that dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese contain some of the highest levels of calcium needed for growing bodies and to keep bones strong. But those who have milk allergy can't eat those calcium-rich foods, or else they risk suffering from an allergic reaction. So what can they do?

Their best bet is to load up on calcium-rich foods that do not include dairy.

Options range from calcium-fortified orange juice to tofu and certain greens, such as kale.

Calcium Builds Strong Bones

Children need calcium to help with their bone development. Bones develop at a rapid pace during childhood and adolescence—in fact, this time frame is known as the peak bone growth phase of life.

Essentially, like a bank, calcium from the food we eat is deposited into bone, helping them grow and strengthen. During a youth's second and third decades, this process proceeds at its greatest pace. After young adulthood is reached, bone accumulation stops, and we start needing to maintain our bone mass.

Bone density is preserved when enough calcium (and vitamin D) is consumed daily. When bone growth is completed, the bone bank withdrawal system kicks in. If low amounts of calcium are consumed, the bone bank offers up calcium for the normal functioning of other tissues, especially the heart and muscles.

Therefore, it is important to build bones when you can, during middle childhood and adolescence, and maintain the integrity of bone in adulthood, partly through adequate consumption of calcium-containing foods.

Here is the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for calcium among all age groups, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM):

  • 1-3 years: 700 milligrams (mg) calcium per day
  • 4-8 years: 1,000 mg calcium per day
  • 9-13 years: 1,300 mg calcium per day
  • 14-18 years: 1,300 mg calcium per day
  • 19-50 years: 1,000 mg calcium per day
  • 51-70 year old males: 1,000 mg calcium per day
  • 51-70 year old females: 1,200 mg calcium per day
  • 70 years old and older: 1,200 mg calcium per day

Calcium and Dairy Allergies

When you have a food allergy to milk, the consistent and adequate intake of calcium can be compromised, and this can be a real concern during those peak bone-building years. In fact, girls from ages 9-18 years are at particular risk for poor bone health, as intake data consistently shows this age group is missing out on enough calcium in the diet. Girls with food allergy to milk are at an even higher risk.

Fortunately, four out of five children will outgrow a milk allergy by the age of 5, and most of the rest will see their milk allergies resolve by adolescence. But that still leaves several important years or more when kids and teens with a milk allergy need lots of calcium, but can't get it from dairy products. Adults who can't have dairy products also need to find adequate substitutes.

Non-Dairy Calcium Sources

Milk substitutes can be a source of calcium, but not all milk substitutes are created equally.

Some, like soy milk, will have similar calcium amounts per cup as cow’s milk (about 300 mg per cup), while others may vary in their calcium load. Plus, calcium is added to alternative milks (as opposed to occurring naturally, the way it does in cow's milk), and it may settle to the bottom of the milk container. Be sure to shake your alternative milk prior to drinking, and read the ingredient label to get the most calcium per cup you can find in your dairy-free alternative.

Other non-dairy foods contain calcium, and many believe it's easy to match calcium requirements on these foods alone. This is possible, since there are certainly many foods to choose from, but you’ll be eating quite a bit of some foods.

And, remember, if you are dealing with a child with a milk allergy, you may be hard-pressed to get him to eat some of these non-dairy calcium-rich foods.

Here are a list of calcium-containing non-dairy foods and the amount you’ll need to eat to match the calcium content of an 8-ounce glass of cow's milk (remember that you'd need more than three glasses of cow's milk per day to get your recommended daily allotment of calcium).

How Much Do I Eat to Match the Calcium in Cow’s Milk?

Food

  Amount to Equal 300 mg calcium

Calcium-fortified orange juice

  1 cup

Sardines, canned in oil

  3 ounces

Tofu, firm, made with calcium sulfate

  ½ cup

Salmon, canned

  3 ounces

Tofu, soft, made with calcium sulfate

  1 cup

Fresh turnip greens

  1 ½ cups

Fresh kale

  1 ½ cups

Bok Choy

  4 cups

White bread

  4 slices

Broccoli

  7 ½ cups

Okra

  4 cups

Hummus

  2 ½ cups

Pinto beans, canned

  3 cups

Sesame seeds

  4 tablespoons

Blackstrap molasses

  2 tablespoons

A Word from Verywell

It can be challenging for children and adults who can't consume dairy products to get enough calcium. Unless you eat lots of tofu daily or serve canned salmon for dinner each evening, you're likely to struggle to meet your daily requirements.

If you're worried that you or your milk-allergic child may not be getting adequate calcium from food, check with a nutrition professional who can assist with a meal plan that can cover your unique needs. You may need to talk to your allergist or doctor about taking a calcium supplement. Multivitamins and mineral supplements generally do not contain significant amounts of calcium, so a stand-alone calcium supplement or a calcium + vitamin D chew may be needed.

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