Anna Mapson looks at non-dairy calcium
Many families are now choosing to reduce the animal products in their diet for ethical or environmental reasons. If you have cut out dairy it’s important to ensure that you’re still getting the right levels of key nutrients as part of a broad and balanced diet.
Why you might be sensitive to dairy
If you’ve given up dairy due to suspected intolerance, you might still be OK with some dairy foods – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Yoghurt, kefir (fermented yoghurt), butter or cheese might be tolerated by people who find that milk makes them bloated or causes IBS symptoms.
Our bodies produce a digestive enzyme called lactase, which breaks down lactose, the sugar in milk. If you don’t make enough of this enzyme, you might get a reaction when you eat dairy foods, because the food isn’t properly broken down. Yoghurt can be easier to digest because the fermentation process helps to break down the lactose. Yoghurt and kefir also boost the microbiome by adding healthy bacteria in the gut.
If you don’t include any dairy in your diet at all, you can choose from a huge range of non-dairy alternative products. Plant milks in particular have become more mainstream recently. These don’t replace the nutritional profile of cow’s milk in a like-for-like way: most are very low in protein and fats and don’t include calcium or iodine. These drinks can form part of your diet, but don’t rely on them as a good source of nutrients.
Iodine can be lacking in people who do not eat dairy foods. You can find it in seaweed or in white fish like cod or haddock.
Calcium – essential for life
We need calcium to build strong bones and teeth, and 99% of calcium is stored in our bones. It’s used in blood clotting, in transmitting nerve messages and in every muscle contraction we make, including making the heart beat. So it’s essential!
We don’t need dairy foods in our diet, but we do need to eat a diet that contains adequate calcium. When we don’t eat enough calcium, it is removed from the bones, and this can lead to brittle bones. Non-dairy sources include tofu (in water, not marinated), sesame seeds, almonds, green leafy vegetables like kale, broccoli or collard greens, dried figs, rhubarb and beans. If you eat fish, tinned sardines that include the bones are a good source of calcium.
How much calcium do we need?
There is an increased need for calcium during the teenage years and for breastfeeding mothers. (See table for details of the daily requirement.) People with a condition that limits absorption, such as Crohn’s disease or colitis, might struggle to get enough calcium through diet alone.
|age 11–18||boys 1,000mg girls 800mg|
Dairy-free breastfeeding mums are advised by the NHS to take a daily calcium supplement of 600–1,000mg to protect their bones. Breast milk will take calcium from a woman’s bones if there isn’t enough in her diet, and this can impact on her future bone density.
How maximise calcium from your diet
Ensure sufficient vitamin D. We need vitamin D to help our bodies absorb the calcium from our diet. The best way to get vitamin D is from the sun, but in the UK people are advised to supplement their diet from September to April. This is because during the winter months the sun doesn’t rise high enough in the sky to promote vitamin D production in the skin.
Reduce your salt intake. When we eat too much salt, we excrete it through urine, and calcium is taken out as well. To protect your calcium intake, ensure that your salt levels are within the 6g per day guideline.
Space calcium-rich foods throughout the day. We can’t absorb huge amounts of calcium at one time, so it’s best to spread out your calcium-rich foods to ensure you are making the most of what you eat.
Anna Mapson is a registered nutritional therapist and weaning consultant at The Gentle Touch. Information in the form of a webinar to support a healthy breastfeeding diet for mums of babies with dairy allergy or reflux and for vegan mums is available for download from the Gentle Touch website. www.the-gentle-touch.com