It can be tough to get all the calcium you need each day, especially if you're vegan, lactose intolerant, or just don't like dairy products. But you shouldn't skimp on calcium. This important mineral does more than strengthen your bones—it also plays a role in regulating your blood pressure and maintaining a healthy heart. If your body doesn't get enough, it'll compensate by leeching calcium from your bones, leaving them brittle and weak.
Luckily, there's a range of non-dairy foods that offer the 1,000 to 1,300 milligrams of calcium the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends you get daily. Roberta Anding, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), says the advantage of plant-based calcium is that it ensures you're eating lots of veggies—another important part of any diet.
[See: How the Raw Food Diet Works.]
But avoiding dairy also comes with a warning. "There are compounds in plants that bind to calcium and prevent you from absorbing it," Anding says. "Although they're good sources of calcium on paper, physiologically, the amount of calcium is not so great. Dairy calcium is biologically available, meaning you absorb what's in the product." The way around this, she adds, is to "make sure you're varying your sources." While nothing can undo the effects of these compounds, in general, vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium—so make sure you get enough of this, too. (The government recommends 15 micrograms of vitamin D per day.)
Consider these six ways to boost your calcium intake without touching dairy.
Dark green vegetables, such as kale, broccoli, Swiss chard, spinach, collard greens, and mustard greens have a fair amount of calcium. One cup of cooked spinach, for instance, has 245 mg., nearly a quarter of your daily recommendation. But be careful, Anding says. Spinach is the one of the "top" vegetables whose compounds can prevent calcium absorption. While this shouldn't discourage you from eating your vegetables, make sure you're getting calcium from other sources, too.
Tiny sesame seeds are packed with calcium. Just 1 tablespoon will give you 88 mg., and in a whole cup, you'll get more than a day's worth—1,404 mg. Since most people don't eat sesame seeds by the cup, you can also try tahini, a Mediterranean sesame paste, which goes well with bread and salad. Otherwise, sprinkling a spoonful of sesame seeds onto a salad or stir-fry everyday can give you a nice calcium boost. Flax seeds are also good—a cup will give you 428 mg.
Nuts are an excellent source of calcium. One cup of Brazil nuts has 213 mg., and 1 cup of whole almonds has 378 mg., more than a cup of milk, which has 299 mg. Snacking on these throughout the day or eating almond butter (instead of peanut butter) in a sandwich at lunch can give you at least a quarter of your recommended daily calcium intake.
Dried herbs are not only packed with flavor—they're surprisingly calcium dense, too. One tablespoon of ground thyme has 81 mg., and the same measurement of ground oregano has 86 mg., while ground basil has 101 mg. Although you won't be eating these by the bucketful, sprinkling them on salads, cooked vegetables, or other dishes will certainly help you get to your 1,000 mg. target.
Soy is the go-to protein source for many vegetarians and vegans, but it also contains lots of calcium. Just 1 ounce of tofu (which usually comes in 12.5-oz. packages) has 105 mg. And depending on which brand you buy, soymilk usually has between 200 and 500 mg. of calcium per cup. Like spinach, soy contains a compound that inhibits calcium absorption, but manufacturers typically use additives to give their products a calcium boost.
If you're still having trouble meeting the recommended 1,000 to 1,300 mg. of calcium each day, you can always reach for a supplement that offers your day's worth. Food manufacturers are also making this goal easier by adding calcium to many of their products (including flour and breakfast cereals) in a way that maximizes absorption. Calcium-fortified orange juice has 500 mg. in each cup, so a few glasses each day should be all you'll need.