Nutrition | Food

Ask the Nutritionist: Best Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium

PCC Natural Markets' Ask the nutritionist Q&A

Whether your child has an intolerance to milk or you’re just worried your child isn’t getting enough calcium, there are good reasons to get this important nutrient into their diet every day. The good news is there are many foods high in calcium that can be prepared in a variety of ways.

Food sources of calcium and daily needs

Food Serving size Amount (mg)
Plain yogurt, low fat1 cup448
Tofu (made with calcium sulfate)4 oz397
Sesame seeds¼ cup351
2% milk1 cup349
Fortified orange juice½ cup250
Dried figs1 cup241
Collards1 cup, raw232
Almonds½ cup189
Fortified soy milk½ cup150
White beans1 cup131
Black strap molasses2 teaspoons117
Sardines1 ounce108
Rhubarb1 cup105
Swiss chard1 cup101
Oranges1 cup71
Dill, dried1 tablespoon53
Broccoli1 cup, raw43


Age group Daily requirement (mg)
1-3 yrs700
4-8 yrs1,000
9-18 yrs1,300

Boy eating an orange

Calcium function in the body

Most people are aware that calcium contributes to strong bones and teeth. Calcium also is present in our blood to help with muscle contractions, nerve functions and blood clotting. Calcium in our blood only makes up one percent of our total calcium, but it will be taken from our bones when there is insufficient amount flowing in the blood. You can think of our bones like a calcium “bank account,” where kids are able to pack in their savings during childhood. As they grow up and age, they’ll start taking from this savings “account” — this ultimately is what can lead to osteoporosis if they go into debt over time. You may have heard that drinking soda can weaken bones; this is true due to the phosphoric acid in dark sodas. It dilutes the one percent ratio of calcium in the blood and can begin depleting the calcium “account” from their bones while they are still young.

Maximizing absorption of calcium

Calcium is a mineral that has several factors that influence how it is absorbed, excreted and mineralized. Knowing what to look for can help put these food sources to best use.

  • Having adequate vitamin D in your child’s diet is critical for calcium absorption and bone formation. Discover the best food sources of vitamin D.
  • Eating high amounts of potassium also can help with retaining and absorbing calcium.
  • High amounts of sodium, caffeine and protein increase the loss of calcium.
  • Foods high in phytic acid (grains, nuts and legumes) as well as oxalic acid (found in spinach and green tea) can lower absorption of calcium. Many of these foods are high in both calcium and phytic or oxalic acid so finding a balance and getting diverse sources of calcium is best.
  • It’s important to know that our bodies only can absorb around 300mg to 400mg of calcium at one time. For example, an adult taking a “one-a-day” pill that contains 1,000mg will only absorb about 1⁄3 of that amount; the rest will be filtered through the kidneys and discarded in the urine. This can be hard on the body and recent research is questioning the advantages over disadvantages of supplementing. We at PCC always encourage getting nutrients from food as the first option.

    Useful tips

    It is easy to find simple ways to incorporate calcium-rich foods into your child’s diet without changing it drastically.

  • Add finely cut collards or other leafy greens to tomato sauce or soup
  • Drizzle a tablespoon of molasses into pancake batter or oatmeal
  • Snack on an orange, a handful of almonds or dried figs
  • Tahini — sesame seed butter — is wonderful when mixed with a little honey and spread on a sandwich, or it can be creatively incorporated into a sauce or dip.
  • Use almond butter in place of peanut butter
  • Mix sardines into tomato sauce — they add a satisfying saltiness without tasting “fishy”
  • Get creative with tofu — firm tofu can be cubed and marinated for a stir-fry, or try silken tofu blended into a mousse or smoothie.
  • Leika Suzumura, R.D., PCC Nutrition Educator

    About the Nutritionist
    Leika received her undergraduate degree in nutrition at Bastyr University. She has dedicated her career to community nutrition with an emphasis on childhood nutrition and parent education as a way to support the livelihood of the next generation. Her approach focuses on bringing kids and parents into the kitchen so that learning nutrition is fun and delicious!

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