One of the most powerful ways to promote good health and to lower disease risk is simply to get enough nutrients. Yet, much of the population doesn’t achieve this.
Calcium is one such nutrient that is absolutely critical for the body, playing a key role in the health of your bones and teeth, along with muscle function and heart health. For adults, the recommended daily intake is 1,000 mg of calcium per day and the recommendations are higher for teenagers and the elderly (1).
Despite the main sources of calcium in the diet, around 40% of the population has insufficient calcium intake (2).
To get enough calcium in the diet, most people turn to dairy sources, like milk and yogurt, which are some of the most powerful options. But, today we’re taking a look at the best non-dairy sources of calcium.
Even so, there are many reasons why people want to cut down on dairy. People often have no choice for doing so, especially if they cannot tolerate dairy. Likewise, you might simply want good alternative sources of calcium.
So then, let’s take a look at the main options out there.
Seeds are powerful sources of nutrition in general and they are also a good choice for calcium. For example, 1 ounce of dried chia seeds offers 177 mg of calcium, which is around 18% of your daily requirements (3).
Likewise, 1 ounce of poppy seeds has 403 mg of calcium, around 40% of the daily value (4).
At the same time, seeds are healthy in their own right.
In particular, they can be effective sources of protein and often contain a good ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Getting that ratio right is important for keeping inflammation low – making seeds especially relevant to health.
Beyond this, seeds are easy to include in the diet. For example, many people add them to healthy smoothies and shakes, often in conjunction with protein powders. Likewise, seeds can be sprinkled on top of most dishes and tend to add an interesting flavor and texture to a meal.
Canned Salmon and Sardines
This may seem like an odd choice but canned salmon and sardines are both good sources of calcium – because the bones are edible. For example, a cup of canned sardines gives you around 570 mg of calcium (57% of the daily intake) (5), while 3 ounces of canned salmon gives you around 210 mg of calcium (21% of the daily intake) (6).
Of course, the catch is that you have to eat the bones to get the calcium, so this idea may not suit everybody.
Still, these two options offer other health benefits as well. In particular, oily fish is a key source of omega-3 fatty acids, along with protein. Those components are key reasons why you should be eating fish regularly anyway.
You may not be familiar with it but amaranth is a type of ancient grain. The ancient grain designation means that the cereal has not been significantly changed throughout history.
In contrast, many of the grains we rely heavily on (like wheat) have been dramatically altered through selective breeding.
This is also a pseudo cereal or pseudo grain. This means that amaranth isn’t actually a grain at all.
But, the similar nutritional composition and behavior mean that amaranth is often treated as a grain, particularly for cooking. Nutritionally, ancient grains like amaranth make powerful additions to the diet and this one is no exception.
One cup of cooked amaranth offers 116 mg of calcium (12% of the daily intake) (7). While the amount may not be especially radical, amaranth is another valuable source of calcium. Additionally, it is easy to use in the diet in the place of traditional grains.
You can find out more information about doing so at the site The Survival Mom. Amaranth can also be easily purchased online, such as in the example below.
Lentils and Beans
Both beans and lentils are common sources of protein on a vegetarian or a vegan diet, which is why sites like The Vegan R.D. often focus on them so heavily. At the same time, they offer a range of other nutrients, including iron, folate and magnesium.
This makes them great additions to the diet as a whole and a good way to make sure you get all the nutrients you need.
Likewise, beans may help lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and LDL cholesterol levels (8), which is another reason to eat them regularly. Now, different varieties of beans and lentils do vary in their nutritional composition. So, you need to plan your bean consumption accordingly.
Some of the best options are as follows:
- Winged beans (1 cup cooked beans): 244 mg of calcium/24% RDI (9)
- White beans (1 cup cooked beans): 131 mg of calcium/13% RDI (10)
- Great northern beans (1 cup cooked beans): 120 mg of calcium/12% RDI (11)
- French beans (1 cup cooked beans): 111 mg of calcium/11% RDI (12)
- Roman beans (1 cup cooked beans): 89 mg of calcium/9% RDI (13)
As is the case with other types of food, the best option for health is to vary the beans you consume, which gives you access to a wider range of nutrients overall.
There is also calcium present in edamame, which is a snack made from immature soybeans. A cup of these beans offers around 98 mg of calcium or roughly 10% of the daily value (14).
Bone broth is often considered as a powerful way to promote health and there are many recipes out there. At the same time, this is great for cooking and for creating soups. Nourished Kitchen offers a good introduction to bone broth, along with information about various recipes and uses.
As you can probably imagine, the calcium in bone broth comes from the bones. You may also get some from other ingredients, depending on the specific recipe.
While the idea isn’t for everybody, many people do swear by bone broth and it is worth checking out.
Generally speaking, dark leafy greens are incredibly powerful for health, offering a large range of plant-based nutrients. This is one reason why kale is often considered to be such a powerful superfood, although other options (like Swiss chard) have most of the same benefits.
Along with those advantages, some leafy greens are good sources of calcium. Kale is one example of this, where a cup of cooked kale offers 9% of the daily intake for calcium (15). Another option is collard greens, where a cup of cooked collard greens contains 27% of the daily intake for calcium (16).
The amounts do vary across the leafy greens, so it’s important to check the nutrition data first. Still, it’s clear that these vegetables can be a good source of calcium, especially when included in a healthy diet.
Besides, their other nutritional advantages are too powerful to ignore.
Nevertheless, be aware that some dark leafy greens are relatively high in oxalates. This is particularly true for spinach. Oxalates are significant because they decrease the absorption of some nutrients, including calcium. Because of this, spinach doesn't provide a good usable source of calcium, even though it contains the compound.
Nuts are another useful addition to the diet and they can even help with weight loss. Almonds tend to be one of the most popular options and they are particularly good for their protein content. Indeed, the implications of almonds for health are significant.
At the same time, almonds do contain calcium.
In particular, 100 grams of almonds has 266 mg of calcium, which is a little over a quarter of the RDI for calcium. For that matter, you still get 7% of the RDI just from a single ounce of almonds (17).
Other nuts do also contain calcium but typically in lower quantities. So, if you want calcium from nuts, almonds are certainly the best way to go.
This also means that almond butter will contain some calcium. Precisely how much per serving will depend on how the butter is made and how many other ingredients are in it.
On a side note, almond milk naturally contains relatively little calcium. This is because the ‘milk’ is mostly water and any nutrients from the almonds are diluted. However, as we’ll come back to, many almond milk brands do fortify their products with calcium.
If you don’t mind the sugar, dried figs can also be an interesting source of calcium. In particular, one cup of dried figs contains almost a quarter of the RDI for calcium (18), which is fairly impressive.
Figs are also appealing because they offer significant health benefits in their own right.
Nevertheless, the high calcium concentration is partly a byproduct of the fig being dried. In particular, drying fruit dramatically increases the nutrient density because the water is removed.
This is especially obvious in the case of figs, as 100 grams of fresh figs contains just 4% of the daily value for calcium (19). So, dried figs are the best option if you want calcium – but be aware of their sugar content, as dried fruit does contain high amounts of sugar.
In some cases, foods are also fortified with calcium. This pattern is particularly common in plant-based milk alternatives, like almond milk and soy milk. However, this does vary between brands.
The decision makes sense, as many people rely on plant-based milk as an alternative to dairy. And, any food fortified with calcium can act as a good source of the mineral.
Breakfast cereals are often fortified with calcium as well, as are some other products like orange juice. So, fortified foods are another option.
Additionally, you will often find calcium in tofu. Strictly speaking, this isn’t the result of fortification but the way that the tofu is made. As such, some brands will have significant calcium, while others may not. But, this is another option, especially for vegetarians and vegans who may be consuming tofu regularly anyway.
However, we always recommend going with natural sources of nutrients, rather than fortified foods. At the end of the day, you know what you’re getting with natural options and whole food does tend to promote better health.
One final option for calcium is, of course, calcium supplements. Many people do get their calcium this way and supplements will often be prescribed by doctors. But, there is considerable debate about how effective these are.
For one thing, too much calcium can be damaging, rather than beneficial (20). You’re probably not going to get excessive amounts of calcium from your diet but this could easily happen with supplements (21).
To make matters worse, some people end up taking calcium supplements and also consuming many dietary sources of calcium.
At the same time, it’s normally better to get your nutrients from food, rather than in the form of supplements. In many cases, doing so can result in considerably better absorption, giving you more benefits overall. Wellness Mama highlights some of this area in her discussion of calcium.
Food also gives you access to a wide range of other nutrients. These can also give you health benefits and the various nutrients do interact with one another. As a result, relying on a variety of healthy foods can have dramatic positive implications for health, much more so than any supplement.
Finally, the supplement industry is largely unregulated. As a consequence, many supplements don’t actually contain what their label claims. Likewise, some supplements are even contaminated and may contain toxins. This pattern means that the wrong supplement could cause major health issues, rather than benefits (22).
Without a doubt, there are some supplements that can be critical for health. For example, we strongly advocate vitamin D supplementation. Likewise, fish oil supplements can be relevant for many people. And, paying close attention to brands and labels can dramatically reduce the risk of bad supplements.
But – you still shouldn’t be taking supplements you don’t need.
Calcium is one of those supplements. Chris Kresser has a great summary of the topic if you want to learn more about why you should think twice about calcium supplements.
Besides, with so many food-based options for calcium, there simply is no need to take supplements, unless your doctor specifically tells you to. This is even true if you are avoiding dairy entirely, as there is no shortage of rich non-dairy calcium sources.
Want to Improve Your Health?
Better health starts in the kitchen, with the food that you eat and the meals you prepare. Getting the best outcomes involves making good choices about the food and the ingredients that you use.
Check out my recommended products to see where you can get started.