Can we meet our daily calcium requirements consuming non dairy food sources?

Calcium is a fundamental mineral required for healthy bone growth and maintenance, which is constantly deposited and reabsorbed from a person bones. As per Figure 1, Peak Bone Mass (PMB) is reached at approximately 20-30 years of age, before deterioration at around 50 years for males and post menopause for females. BMD in old age is determined both by the PBM is reached in young adults and the rate of bone loss associated with aging. Inadequate calcium intake places people at risk of age-related bone loss often causing Osteoporosis; a bone disease characterised by deterioration of bone mass.

Figure 1: Bone Mass Trend in Adults

Now the million dollar question is: Can we meet our Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of calcium consuming non dairy food sources? Or are we are more likely to meet the 1000mg/day calcium requirement of an adult aged 18-50 years through consuming dairy food sources? Or should this be a combination of both?

Let me dive into the detail. Higher quantities of calcium are found in dairy food, however some amount is contained in various non-dairy foods.

To meet the RDI consuming solely non dairy sources, we would have to mindfully plan out what foods and how much we would need to eat, as it is more difficult to achieve. So if you’re like me and sensitive to lactose (the sugar found in dairy) then you might want to consider getting majority of your calcium from non dairy sources, with the addition of dairy where you may fall short of the requirements. See the comparison of below:

Calcium provided by dairy food sources

Yoghurt (200g) = 380mg

Cheese (40g) = 370mg

Milk (1 cup) = 250mg

Ricotta (½ cup) = 250mg

Feta (40g) =190mg

Cottage Cheese (½ cup) = 85mg

Calcium provided by non-dairy food sources

Tofu (1 cup) = 832mg

Soy Milk (1 cup) = 309mg

Salmon (90g) = 279mg

Figs (6 whole) = 160mg

Chia Seeds (1 tablespoon) = 88mg

Tahini (1 tablespoon) = 66mg

Almonds (20 whole) = 60mg

Spinach (1 cup) = 53mg

Broccoli (6 florets) = 45mg

(Source: NUTTAB 2010)

Please keep in mind that calcium absorption can be inhibited by:

  1. Low Vitamin D levels

  2. Excessive caffeine and alcohol

  3. Foods high in phytates (i.e. cereals, beans/legumes) or oxalates (i.e. spinach, rhubarb, beets, nuts)

  4. Certain medical conditions and medications

People following a predominately plant based diet need to consider whether they are going to be able to meet the daily calcium requirements. If the answer is no, please consider speaking to your GP or nutritionist about calcium supplementation. I think if we are educated about the topic, it's easier to make informed decisions. Keep in mind that females aged >50 years and mean aged >70 years experience an increase in calcium requirements to 1300mg/ day. A change to the diet alone is not enough to reduce the continual decline in bone density, so let's get on top of reaching our calcium levels whilst we are in our youth!


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