Here is a question I got from Mara, one of the readers: “ How to help my dairy-free child meet his calcium needs?”
Raising a dairy-free child may seem daunting to many parents but whether the reason is a food allergy or lifestyle choice, the abundance of calcium-fortified foods makes it easier to help meet his or her calcium needs.
In general, children 1-3 years need 700 mg of calcium per day, children 4-8 years need 1,000 mg of calcium per day, and children 9 to 18 years need 1,300 mg of calcium per day.
Best sources of calcium
Below are some of the best sources of calcium, coming both from dairy and dairy-free products. I provide an approximate amount of calcium for each food because it may vary slightly from one brand to another.
- 8oz of yogurt = around 400 mg
- 1.5 ounces of cheddar cheese = around 300 mg
- 8 ounces of milk = around 300 mg
- ½ cup vanilla ice cream = around 100 mg
Non-dairy foods fortified with calcium:
- 8oz fortified soy, rice or almond milk = around 300 mg
- 8oz fortified orange juice = around 270 mg
- ½ cup tofu made with calcium sulfate = around 250 mg
- 1 cup of ready-to-eat fortified cereal = 100-1000 mg
Non-dairy foods with naturally occurring calcium:
- 3 oz sardines, canned in oil, with bones = around 300 mg
- 3 oz pink salmon, canned, with bones = around 180 mg
- 1 cup cooked turnip greens = around 250 mg
- 1 cup raw kale = around 100 mg
- 2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses = 400 mg
- 1 cup cooked collard greens = around 350 mg
- 1 cup of bock choy, cooked = around 150 mg
- 2 tablespoons of tahini = around 130 mg
- 1 cup of navy beans, cooked = around 120 mg
- 2 tablespoons of almond butter = around 100 mg
As you can see, it is possible to meet calcium needs for the dairy-free children. But it requires extra thought when shopping and planning meals.
Here is an example of how a 5-year-old child’s calcium needs can be met without eating dairy. It is not a complete meal plan, since I listed only calcium-rich foods that can be incorporated into the diet:
Meeting calcium needs of a dairy-free 5-year-old
8oz of soy milk or other calcium-fortified beverage = around 300 mg
1 cup of cheerios = 114 mg
½ cup cooked greens = around 75-170mg
½ cup tofu made with calcium sulfate = around 250 mg
½ cup of cooked beans = around 60mg
8oz of calcium-fortified beverage = around 300 mg
Total: 1,099 – 1,194 mg of calcium
More tips on a balanced dairy-free diet
1. Get enough vitamin D. Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health and helps with calcium absorption. It is hard to get sun exposure necessary for vitamin D production in the body.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends vitamin D supplementation for kids of all ages. Make sure your child’s supplement provides at least 400 IU.
2. Choose greens lower in oxalic acid. Many plant sources of calcium such as spinach and chard are high is oxalic acid, which may interfere with calcium absorption. Kale is lower in oxalic acid than other greens.
3. Consider calcium supplementation. Vegan kids, who eat no animal products, and ovo-vegetarians, who eat eggs but avoid dairy, are at the highest risk of not eating enough calcium.
If your child does not meet the calcium needs through diet, you can discuss supplementation with the doctor. Be mindful that most multi’s provide very little calcium because it is a very bulky nutrient, so your child may need additional supplementation.
4. Provide enough fat and protein. If your dairy-free child is under 3 years, avoid using any milk alternatives, with the exception of soy milk, as a primary beverage.
Rice, almond, hemp, coconut and other types of milk alternatives do not provide enough fat and protein for children of this age. Make sure to include plenty of other sources of fat, like oil, avocado and eggs, especially if your child is under 24 months.
5. Look out for carrageenan. A common additive in many plant milks, carrageenan may irritate the digestive tract of people who are sensitive to it. For a list of products free of carrageenan, check this buying guide from the Cornucopia Institute.
Calcium. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet. Office of dietary supplements. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
Vitamin D: on the Double. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/nutrition/Pages/Vitamin-D-On-the-Double.aspx
Calcium in the vegan diet. The Vegetarian Resource Group. http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/calcium.php
Mangels R., Driggers J.The Youngest Vegetarians : Vegetarian Infants and Toddlers. ICAN: Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition 2012 4: 8.