What is Calcium and Why is it Important?
Before we explore the best non-dairy sources of calcium, let's first understand what this mineral is and why our bodies need it. Calcium is the most prevalent mineral found in the body . Almost all of the calcium (around 99%) we house is stored in our bones and teeth. The remaining 1% circulates in our bloodstream and is freely available in muscle tissue.
Calcium is a crucial mineral that plays a role in numerous bodily functions, including bone health, muscle contraction, nerve transmission, blood clotting, and hormone regulation. It also serves as a building block for our bones and teeth, providing strength and structure to support our bodies.
The Body's Calcium Regulation System
Our bodies are like well-oiled machines, especially when it comes to the regulation of calcium . This system is a finely tuned balance between absorption, excretion, and storage. When we consume calcium-rich foods, the nutrients are absorbed in our digestive tract and enters the bloodstream for use in different body systems. If our dietary calcium intake is high, the body eliminates the excess through the kidneys into the urine.
However, if our dietary intake of calcium is low, the body's fail-safe mechanism kicks in. The parathyroid glands sense this low calcium level and release parathyroid hormone (PTH). This hormone signals the bones to release some of their stored calcium into the bloodstream so that calcium can be readily available for other important functions. It also causes the kidneys to recycle calcium ions that could have been lost in the urine back to the bloodstream.
This complex process is critical in preserving the balance of calcium in our bodies, ensuring we have strong bones and teeth, and keeping our heart, muscles, and nerves functioning optimally. Hence, it’s essential to consume an adequate amount of calcium, from dairy and non-dairy sources to maintain optimal health.
Dairy vs. Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium
I'm a big proponent of dairy. It's a natural, whole food prepackaged with synergistic nutrients like vitamin D, healthy fats and protein that support growth, development and a range of other biological functions. Research demonstrates that milk and dairy products are beneficial for almost everyone at any age , with a particular emphasis on children's and teens' health. This is mainly due to the higher nutritional requirements for muscle and bone growth , brain development, and maintaining immune health during these important years of life.
While dairy products do contain high levels of calcium, dairy may not be suitable for everyone. And as you age, your ability to digest dairy can sometimes be impaired. If you're vegetarian or lactose-intolerant, you'll need to consider alternative sources of calcium to ensure you're getting enough of this vital mineral in your diet. Fortunately, plenty of plant-based and non-dairy sources of calcium are available if the likes of milk, cheese and yoghurt are off the menu. But is one category better than the other when it comes to absorption? Read on to find out more.
Calcium Bioavailability in Dairy and Non-Dairy Foods
While dairy products are promoted as the go-to source of calcium due to their high bioavailability, non-dairy sources shouldn't be overlooked. The body's absorption rate, or bioavailability , of calcium from dairy sources usually ranges between 30-35% . However, some non-dairy sources have less actual calcium content, yet boast comparable, or higher levels of bioavailability, depending on how they're cooked and prepared. For instance, calcium bioavailability from steamed Bok choy, kale, and broccoli is around 50-60%, surpassing dairy. Similarly, soaked or activated nuts and seeds contain many bioavailable nutrients and minerals, including calcium.
The trade off is that you’d need to consume a higher quantity of nuts, leafy greens and vegetables to obtain the same calcium content. Another important point to remember here is that plant-based sources of calcium also contain phytates or anti-nutrients , which can inhibit the absorption of the minerals therein. Cooking, blanching, steaming and soaking these foods will deactivate these phytochemicals, making the calcium readily available for absorption in the body.
According to a recent scientific review, both non-dairy and dairy calcium sources can help reduce the risk of kidney stones . These findings, as reported in the Journal of Urology, state that irrespective of age, gender and other dietary influences, calcium plays a significant role in preventing kidney stones.
So, while dairy products are efficient sources of calcium, several non-dairy foods also provide ample amounts of this crucial mineral, supporting balanced nutrition. Enjoying a variety of these foods in your diet will help ensure you get enough calcium to stay healthy.
The Top 8 Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium
Many foods contain calcium besides dairy. Here are the top non-dairy sources of calcium:
- Sardines: These little beauties may be a surprise contender, but they’re incredibly high in calcium, not to mention omega-3 fatty acids as well.
- Tofu: When prepared with calcium sulphate, tofu can be a great source of this important mineral.
- White beans: White beans, chickpeas and lentils not only provide a good dose of protein, but they also offer a healthy amount of calcium, too.
- Bok Choy: Also known as Chinese cabbage, bok choy is a calcium-rich vegetable.
- Leafy Greens: Kale, collard greens, and spinach are all excellent sources of calcium, provided they are cooked first.
- Figs: This sweet fruit is not only delicious, but it also delivers a good hit of calcium as well.
- Nuts and Seeds: Almonds , peanuts , chia seeds , and sesame seeds are packed with calcium. Soaking them overnight enhances the calcium bioavailability.
- Broccoli: This versatile vegetable is high in vitamin C and contains a decent amount of calcium.
Delicious Ways To Include Non-Dairy Calcium Foods
There are many ways to incorporate non-dairy sources of calcium into your diet. Here are a few tips, ideas and inspiration:
- Mix some ground flaxseed or chia seeds into your morning smoothie for an extra calcium boost.
- Snack on roasted chickpeas or edamame beans, both of which are high in calcium.
- Make homemade granola using oats , hemp seeds , almonds , LSA and pumpkin seeds for a calcium-rich breakfast option.
- Add leafy greens like kale or baby spinach to your salads or soups for a calcium boost.
- Use tahini (sesame seed paste) as a dip, salad dressing, or sauce to add some extra calcium to your meals.
- Incorporate tofu or tempeh into your stir-fries, curries, and other dishes for a high-calcium protein option.
- Snack on some dried fruit , such as dried figs or apricots , which are high in both calcium and fibre.
Enjoy These Plant-Based Non-Dairy Calcium Sources
By incorporating various non-dairy calcium sources into your meals and snacks, you can help meet your daily needs of this vital mineral without relying solely on dairy products. Adding these foods to your diet can bring new and exciting flavours to your meals. So, next time you're looking for a calcium boost, remember the many delicious non-dairy options available.
Healthy Calcium-Rich Recipes (Without Dairy)
If you want to explore some delicious and healthy recipes that are rich in calcium and dairy-free, here are some to get you started:
Chia Pudding with Stewed Figs and Toasted Almonds
For a sweet and crunchy twist to your breakfast or dessert, here's a healthy chia pudding to start your day. Rich in fibre , plant-protein , omega-3 fats and calcium, it ticks many nutritional boxes in a delicious way!
- 1/4 cup of chia seeds
- 1 cup of non-dairy milk ( homemade nut milk or almond milk )
- 2 tablespoons of maple syrup or honey
- 4-6 fresh or dried figs , quartered
- 1/2 cup of water
- 1/2 cup of blanched almonds
- Start by combining chia seeds, non-dairy milk, and a tablespoon of maple syrup in a bowl. Mix well until chia seeds are evenly dispersed.
- Allow the mixture to sit for at least 2 hours or overnight in the refrigerator until the chia seeds soak up the liquid and form a gel-like consistency.
- Meanwhile, place the quartered figs in a small saucepan with water and the remaining tablespoon of syrup. Simmer over medium-low heat until the figs are soft, and the mix turns into a syrupy consistency. This should take around 15-20 minutes.
- Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan over medium heat until golden and fragrant. Be sure to keep an eye on them to avoid burning.
- To serve, spoon the chia pudding into bowls or glasses, top with the stewed figs and their syrup, and sprinkle with toasted almonds. Enjoy.
Creamy Cauliflower Alfredo Pasta
Here's another dish that will delight your taste buds while nourishing your body with non-dairy calcium. The humble cauliflower becomes a creamy, dreamy Alfredo sauce that pairs perfectly with pasta. Not to mention, it's a great way to sneak some extra veggies into your meal.
- 1 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk
- 2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 packet of your favourite pasta (go for gluten-free, spelt or pulse pasta for a healthier choice)
- Steam the cauliflower florets until they're soft and tender.
- While your cauliflower is steaming, cook your pasta according to the package instructions. Drain and reserve a ladle of cooking water, and set aside.
- In a blender, combine the steamed cauliflower, minced garlic, almond milk, nutritional yeast, salt, and pepper. Blend until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
- Pour the cauliflower Alfredo sauce over your cooked pasta. Toss until everything is coated in the sauce. Add some of the reserved cooking water if needed.
- Adjust the seasonings according to your preference.
- Serve your delicious creamy pasta with a sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes and enjoy this moreish, calcium-rich delight.