Calcium is an essential mineral for healthy bones and teeth – a lack of calcium can affect the bone development of children and lead to osteoporosis in adults. Yet many of you will be either unable to enjoy or prefer to avoid those foods that are traditionally associated with a high calcium content, such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. Happily there are a number of dairy-free superfoods, which are surprisingly rich in calcium and, when consumed on a regular basis, can boost your calcium intake demonstrably.
In this article you’ll learn more about the health benefits of calcium, the symptoms of a calcium deficiency, and discover 5 calcium-rich superfoods that are entirely dairy-free.
What is calcium and why do you need it?
Calcium is a soft, grey, alkaline earth metal and the most abundant mineral in your body. In fact, calcium accounts for some 1-2 percent of your total body weight. It is required to build strong bones and teeth, regulate muscle contractions (including heartbeat) and enable your blood to clot. Calcium absorption and bone development is at its peak when you reach about 20 years of age, and begins to decrease when you are around 30. An adequate calcium intake can increase bone mass in growing children and young adults, and may also help to decrease bone loss as you age.
What are the additional health benefits of calcium?
As well as ensuring healthy bones and teeth, regulating muscle contractions and enabling your blood to clot, calcium also offers a number of arguably less well-known benefits for your health.
Calcium also helps to:
- Lower blood pressure – and as a result can help to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease*.
- Promote natural weight loss – calcium stimulates your metabolism and thus encourages food to be burned as fuel instead of being stored as unwelcome layers of fat.
- Prevent cancer – research suggests that an adequate calcium intake may also help to prevent certain types of cancer, including colorectal, ovarian and breast cancer. Scientific research, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, reports that calcium ‘seems to protect high-risk people from developing the polyps that can lead to colorectal cancer’, whilst a population-based case-control study in the Netherlands, indicates that women consuming high levels of both dietary calcium and fibre may have a decreased risk of breast cancer.**
How much calcium do you need?
According to the NHS, adults require 700mg of calcium every day. Although milk, cheese and other dairy products are often highlighted as good sources of calcium, many of you will be unable to consume these due to one or more of the following:
- A lactose intolerance – a common digestive problem in which your body is unable to digest lactose (a type of sugar found in milk and dairy products).
- An allergy to dairy products – usually an allergy to the protein found in milk and other dairy products.
- A vegan lifestyle – a Vegan Society study of nearly 35,000 UK adults revealed that vegans had a higher risk of bone fracture as a result of their reduced calcium intake.
Calcium deficiency – signs and symptoms
Most people are oblivious to the fact that they may be suffering from a lack of calcium. Often the very first symptom is a bone fracture or the loss of a tooth, by which time a significant amount of damage has already been done.
Symptoms of a calcium deficiency to look out for include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Feeling faint
- Low blood pressure
- Intestinal cramps
- Pain in spine or hips
- Loss of height
- Brittle hair and nails
Left unchecked, a calcium deficiency can lead to permanent loss of bone mass and cause fragility, broken bones (every year people in the UK suffer more than 300,000 fragility fractures, which is equivalent to one every 2 minutes!), loss of mobility and, ultimately, osteoporosis – a debilitating bone condition that is estimated to effect more than 3 million people in the UK alone. Recent research on more than 60,000 elderly women in Sweden suggests that those with a low dietary calcium intake (less than 700 mg) were at greater risk of bone fracture and osteoporosis.
5 dairy-free superfoods that are rich in calcium
Contrary to popular belief, you needn’t consume dairy products in order to receive an adequate intake of calcium. In fact there are a number of delicious, dairy-free superfoods that contain generous amounts of calcium.
Below are five dairy-free superfoods with calcium that will boost your calcium intake significantly when incorporated into your daily diet.
1) Organic chia seeds
Organic chia seeds top the list of dairy-free superfoods with calcium for good reason – indeed, organic chia seeds contain a staggering 500% more calcium than milk and just one tablespoon of this calcium rich superfood supplies up to 10% of your recommended daily intake! Not only that, organic chia seeds contain boron and magnesium (organic chia seeds boast 1400% more magnesium than broccoli), both of which help in your body’s absorption of calcium. Organic chia seeds can be stirred into smoothies, shakes and protein drinks, used to thicken soups, sauces and nut butters, or added to your favourite rawfood snacks and desserts.
2) Organic almonds
Organic almonds are another dairy-free superfood that is pleasingly rich in calcium. One small handful of organic almonds contains as much calcium as 1/4 cup of milk and a 100-gram serving supplies more than 25% of your recommended daily calcium intake. Organic almonds additionally contain magnesium, as well as another mineral that plays a crucial role in bone health, phosphorous. Delicious straight from the bag, organic almonds can be used to prepare a luscious almond milk – the perfect cow’s milk substitute for those who are lactose intolerant, have an allergy to milk or simply wish to avoid dairy products altogether.
3) Organic sesame seeds
Organic sesame seeds are genuine little powerhouses of nutrition – in addition to polyunsaturated fatty acids, protein, fibre, vitamin B1, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper and zinc, organic sesame seeds deliver up to 97% of your calcium RDA per every 100 grams. A quarter cup of these crunchy seeds, which are typically used to prepare raw tahini, contains more calcium than an entire cup of full fat milk. Organic sesame seeds can be sprinkled liberally over soups and salads, added to breakfast granolas and desserts, or used as a tasty ingredient in raw chocolate bars and snacks.
4) Organic kale
Leafy greens are a superb source of calcium and organic kale is no exception. Organic kale is loaded with beneficial nutrients, including vitamins A, B6, B12 and D, iron and magnesium, and a 100-gram serving of this powerful supergreen provides 15% of your recommended daily calcium intake. Ideal raw in green juices and salads, organic kale is also available in the form of kale chips – a far tastier and much healthier alternative to regular crisps.
5) Organic baobab powder
Made from the fruit of the Madagascan baobab tree, gram for gram organic baobab powder contains twice as much calcium as milk and one single serving delivers some 6 percent of your recommended daily calcium intake. In fact, many African women consume baobab fruit pulp throughout the term of their pregnancy and whilst breastfeeding, in order to specifically increase their calcium intake. Brimming with other beneficial nutrients, such as fibre, vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6 and C, potassium, magnesium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, zinc, molybdenum, and a wealth of antioxidants, organic baobab powder is an exceptionally versatile kitchen ingredient that can be mixed into smoothies, shakes, juices and protein drinks, sprinkled over breakfast granolas, fresh fruit salads and desserts, or used as a fruity ingredient in raw chocolate and other sweet treats.
*Warning: too much calcium (more than 2,000mg) has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Calcium rich superfoods are therefore preferable to concentrated calcium supplements for optimal heart health.
**Excessively high doses of calcium may also increase the risk of prostate cancer. For this reason, the National Cancer Institute does not recommend calcium supplements and instead promotes adequate calcium intake via dietary sources.