Dairy-free Calcium- Happy Healthy Bones Week!
Dairy, dairy, quite contrary - how do you build your bones?
It's drilled into us from the day we start eating solids that milk and other dairy products are the best sources of calcium. It's true. Knock back a 250ml glass of milk and you've already got around 300mg of calcium. That's 30% of an average adults recommended dietary intake (RDI). Eating dairy makes it very easy for us to get our calcium needs, it's also a source of protein, zinc and B12 among others.
But what do we do when dairy just doesn't agree with us?
If you have lactose intolerance, you can still consume dairy. Cheese such as cheddar is low in lactose (0.04mg per 40g) compared to milk (12mg per cup). Yoghurt is also lower than milk, as the bacteria use lactose as their food. The longer the yoghurt has been on the shelf, the less lactose it's likely to have. How much you can tolerate each day however, is an individual thing.
Milk protein allergy (casein and/or whey)
An allergy to milk protein is typically seen in young children, not so much adults as we tend to outgrow it. Though, there are some of us who never actually do. If you've developed an issue with dairy products beyond your teenage years, then it's more likely a lactose issue. For the allergic folk, symptoms include skin rashes, swelling of the tongue, mouth, face, lips and sneezing, runny nose and itchy eyes. In the most serious cases, anaphylaxis.
Vegan and Paleo lifestyles
Whilst they omit dairy for completely different reasons, strict followers cut it out 100%. *Gasp!* But what about calcium!??! Well, both vegans and paleo eaters have options.
A vegan diet includes soy products, fortified drinks and cereals, nuts and seeds, green veggies and bread. If their diet is healthy and balanced, with a variety of these foods, they should have their calcium needs covered.
A paleo diet cuts out soy and most fortified drinks, bread and cereals too. As a result, adequate calcium intake can be a little trickier to manage. Ensuring you have plenty of green leafy vegetables, broccoli, nuts, seeds, calcium fortified almond milk, tahini and sesame seeds, kelp, chia, salmon, mackerel and sardines with bones, oysters and mussels. These paleo approved foods can go a long way to ensuring an adequate intake as they contain some of the highest levels of calcium per cup or 100g.
What is an 'adequate intake'?
The Australian RDI for calcium is 1000mg for adults 19-50years old. 1300mg for women who are breastfeeding, women 50+ and men 70+. If we don't get enough in our diet, our bodies start taking it from our bones to be used in a multitude of tasks. Our bodies need calcium for more than our bones and teeth, including regulating our heart and muscle function, blood clotting, and proper functioning of our nervous system.
But wait, is calcium really all that matters for bone health?
It may seem that way, but bone health relies on a number of factors!
- You actually need a mixture of different nutrients for healthy bones. Magnesium, vitamin D and phosphorus are also key! Magnesium and phosphorus are in a variety of fruit and vegetables, and you can get vitamin D straight from the sun - all you need is 10-15 mins a day on any part of your skin. No sun? No problem - oily fish, liver, cod liver oil, are your best choices, with smaller amounts in eggs, and vitamin D mushrooms.
- Weight bearing exercise also helps to strengthen your bones.
- Surprisingly, despite the circulating myth that protein is bad for bone health, research actually supports an adequate level of protein is beneficial for maintaining bone strength and mass!
- Soaking nuts and seeds, and cooking your vegetables also help to reduce the levels of phytic acid. Phytic acid can reduce the amount of available calcium for absorption in your gut.
- Excessive alcohol and diets high in salt diets are best to be avoided (anything in excess is never really going to be a great idea).
- Caffeine. Unless you're buzzing off 6+ cups of coffee, energy drinks and soft drinks regularly, if you are having adequate amounts of calcium containing foods, caffeine shouldn't affect your intake drastically.
Can't I just supplement?
Before you go popping a pill and forgetting about your diet, consider this:
- Eating food sources provide you with a much wider range of nutrients than just one vitamin, mineral, etc. What we do know, is that most nutrients work together in the body to perform tasks e.g. vitamin D and calcium; and what we don't yet know, is exactly everything that is in food that contributes to boosting our health. Removing a nutrient from a food, or chemically making it and turning it into a supplement, doesn't really give us the best chance at utilising that nutrient.
- More is not necessarily better. If you can get around the 1000-1300mg mark a day from food, supplementation is unnecessary and potentially harmful. Recent research has shown there may be an increased risk of heart disease in women taking calcium supplements. This effect was not seen in those women getting adequate calcium from food sources.
It's best to talk to your doctor or dietitian before you start or cease supplementation, to ensure you are doing what is right for your body.
If you really don't think you can get enough calcium from food alone, then a supplement of 500-600mg with vitamin D a day is still suitable, and doesn't appear to have any harmful side effects.