In light of a report that “healthy” dairy-free diets are putting our bones in particular at risk, we look at exactly what you can do to get your daily recommended dose of calcium
If you’ve given up dairy, you wouldn’t be alone- according to a survey by the National Osteoporosis Society, around a fifth of under-25s are eliminating dairy from their diets. In a similar show of dairy-shunning, the Food Standards Agency last month reported that 46% of 16-24 year olds claim to be intolerant to dairy products and cow's milk, compared to just 8% of over 75s, when in reality just 5% of the general population is thought to be lactose intolerant. So what’s feeding the avoidance of dairy among young people?
The National Osteoporosis Society believes that “clean eating” and restrictive fad diets promoted by bloggers and unqualified “gurus” could be partly to blame, as Professor Susan Lanham-New, an advisor the the NOS and head of nutritional sciences at the University of Surrey, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:
“There’s nothing wrong with the concept [of clean eating] but I think there is very much a focus for young people to cut out dairy. Social media is rife with people who are talking, quite frankly, about subjects where they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“The foundations for good bone health are very much laid down in the early years, up to the late twenties. If you have a prolonged time of low calcium intakes, that will put you at risk of osteoporotic fractures in later life and at greater risk of stress fractures in earlier life.”
Given that young adults aged between 11-18 need up to 1000 mg of calcium a day, with adults requiring 700 mg a day, the fact that 25% of British teeneagers are consuming less than 400 mg in their daily diet has lead the NOS to label consistent dairy restriction as a “ticking timebomb”. According to The Association of UK Dietitians , calcium deficiencies are far more likely if you’re following a diet free of cow’s milk or lactose, and the fact that much of the population is thought to be deficient in vitamin D could be compounding the issue, as “vitamin D helps the absorption of calcium from foods.”
The fact that osteoporosis affects over three million people in the UK according to the NHS, with over two million women disproportionately affected, the need to ensure that young women in particular are having their calcium needs met is critical. Here are some ideas for upping calcium from the Association of UK Dietitians, and bear in mind that, according to the professionals “it’s best to get your calcium from food sources.” Failing that, dietitians advise seeking medical support:
“If you are unable to meet your daily requirements from food, supplements can be of use, but ask your doctor for advice.”
1. Fortify your basics
Not drinking cow’s milk? That’s not a danger per se, but check that your alternative has the relevant reinforcements.
“Ensure that milk substitutes are calcium-fortified.”
That goes for yogurts too, and to give you an idea of calcium levels, your average calcium enriched milk alternative will deliver around 240 mg of calcium. In the case of yogurt, 125 g will give you 150 mg.
2. Play sardines
Tinned food isn’t always a no-go nutritionally, and in the case of calcium, cracking one open could be highly beneficial:
“Use tinned sardines or pilchards containing bones instead of tuna in sandwiches, on toast or in salads.”
Half a tin of sardines comes in at 258 mg, plus, they cost next next to nothing.
3. Have dessert
“Add yogurt or soya yogurt to fruit as a pudding or use milk or a fortified milk substitute to make custard or milk puddings.”
Just ensure that your dessert of choice isn’t packing too much of the sweet stuff:
“Try to avoid sugary drinks and snacks. If you choose a calcium-rich food which contains sugar, it is best to eat this as part of a meal instead of as a snack.”
4. Get milk
If you do drink milk, or are thinking about reintroducing it to your diet and don’t suffer from an intolerance, consider the following:
“Don’t forget that lower-fat dairy products have as much, and very often more, calcium than full-fat versions. Try a glass of lower-fat milk as rehydration after exercise and to boost your calcium intake.”
5. Try tofu
Plant based? This needn’t be a problem from a calcium point of view, just make sure you’re strategically including dairy-alternatives regularly. Tofu and soya bean curd delivers 200 mg calcium per 60 g serving, as long as it’s been fortified or ‘set’ with calcium (check the label). If it has, get the wok on with a particularly calcium rich vegetable on the side:
“Have a stir fry including tofu, broccoli speaks and chopped nuts for lunch or dinner.”
Whether you’re meat-free or not, it should be noted that the following won’t help you on your calcium quest. That’s not to say that they should be avoided in your diet by any means, but where calcium is concerned, they’re not exactly big hitters:
“Spinach, dried fruits, beans, seeds and nuts are not good sources of calcium. This is because they contain oxalates and/or phytates which reduce how much calcium your body can absorb from them. You should not rely on them as your main sources of calcium.”