When we think of calcium, we think of healthy bones, happy teeth, and tall, cold glasses of milk. Yes, this essential nutrient is most commonly associated with dairy. That’s not for nothing: Eating just three or four servings of milk, cheese, or yogurt is usually enough to meet your daily recommended allowance.
But maybe you’re lactose intolerant, allergic to dairy, you are vegan, or you just don’t like the taste. Does that mean you should start tossing back calcium chews like candy just to be sure you’re getting enough? Not quite. Unlike hard-to-get nutrients like vitamin D, meeting the RDA for calcium is easy to do with food, even if you are cutting out dairy. In fact, experts only recommend supplementing if you’re pregnant, going through menopause, or if you have a deficiency.
When it comes to non-dairy sources of calcium, there are a couple things to keep in mind. Firstly, they’re harder for your body to absorb. Jessica Bihuniak, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at NYU Steinhardt, tells SELF that the bioavailability of calcium in cow’s milk tends to be higher than in other foods, so you’ll be able to get more calcium from a serving of dairy than you would from a serving of, say, leafy greens.
According to the National Institutes of Health, the recommended daily calcium allowance is 1,000 mg for women between the ages of 19 and 50 who’ve never been pregnant and haven’t gone through menopause. One glass of milk contains 276 mg of calcium—more than a quarter of the daily recommendation. But it’s not the only calcium game in town. These five foods have you covered.
1. Leafy greens
A lot of leafy greens contain calcium, sometimes in quantities comparable to milk. But many of them also contain oxalate acid, which inhibits calcium absorption, Katherine Brooking, M.S., R.D., a WebMD contributor, tells SELF. Brooking recommends opting for kale (200 mg of calcium per cup) over spinach or chard, which have higher amounts of that acid and lower amounts of calcium. (Black kale—aka dinosaur, Tuscan, and lacinato kale—is lower in oxalate than curly kale.) Brooking says you’ll also want to avoid pairing your non-dairy calcium sources with iron and zinc, which similarly inhibit absorption.
2. In-bone fish
Some may find this suggestion a little off-putting, but according to Bihuniak, “Sardines with bones are one of the highest non-dairy sources of calcium.” In fact, just one can of sardines has 800 mg of calcium. (You probably don’t want to eat the whole thing, though: Brooking says you should never eat more than 500 mg at a time, because that’s the most you can absorb in one sitting.) The key here is the bones, so if that’s something that peeves you out (we don’t blame you) this may not be the best option for you. If you don’t mind the thought of a few small bones here and there, but don’t love sardines, Brooking says that canned salmon with bones is another great option. Fish is also an excellent source of vitamin D, which Bihuniak explains actually helps our bodies more easily absorb calcium. Try sprinkling either of these fish on your next salad. Those bones will add a nice crunch.
3. Fortified foods
Orange juice, cereal, and non-dairy milks are all products that are often sold fortified, meaning they’re enhanced with nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. Investing in these foods instead of their non-fortified counterparts is a simple way to add extra calcium to your diet without actually changing anything about your diet. One thing small thing to keep in mind: Bihuniak suggests checking the label on these products before making your purchase, as the calcium content tends to vary a lot from brand to brand.
This vegetarian favorite is great for so many reasons, and that includes the fact that it’s packed with calcium. One 1/2 cup serving has 253 mg of calcium.
Sesame and chia seeds are among Brooking’s favorite non-dairy sources of calcium. “A tablespoon of sesame seeds has about 88 mg of calcium which is a pretty good bang for your buck.” Sprinkle sesame seeds on your salads and chia seeds on your smoothies.
SELF – Nutrition