Can I Get Enough Calcium Without Dairy?

A lasting – but not nice – primary school memory was having to drink a small carton of milk at recess. Not a nice cold glass of milk but one that had been languishing for an hour or two on the school veranda in the sun.  It was part of ‘free school milk program’ back in the ’60s.

In the ‘80’s it was abandoned (thank god) as it was costing the government too much and… get this… after 15yrs of implementation there was a lack of evidence for nutritional benefits. No surprise there!

Since then there has been a back and forth debate about the nutritional benefits of dairy among Dieticians and Nutritionists, some proclaiming it is… “It is one of most important sources of Calcium” and it “Promotes strong bones”.

Let’s dissect those proclamations a little further… so you can make up your own mind.

First, let’s establish what is DAIRY and what CALCIUM does in the body.

DAIRY consists of products such as milk, yoghurt, ice-cream, custard, butter and various types of hard and soft cheeses made from Mammals that produce milk (e.g. Cows, Sheep, Goats, even Camels).

CALCIUM is one of the most abundant minerals in the human body. 99% of calcium is in our bones and teeth where it provides structure. It is also used for nerve and muscle function. There’s no mistake – it is a REQUIRED mineral for a healthy functioning body.

As a Holistic Nutritionist and Naturopath, I get a lot of questions on the subject of DAIRY. So, let me address some of them. And if you have more questions, feel free to post a comment on this post.


If you don’t consume dairy, you run the risk of having a Calcium deficiency and developing conditions such as osteoporosis.


Calcium is a mineral that is found in the ground. Plants grow in the ground, absorb the calcium in their roots, you eat the plants – you get calcium. You see, the calcium found in dairy is from animals eating plants. Why not just go to original source – plants. Eat a variety of vegetable, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds and you will have enough calcium in your diet and will NOT run the risk of a calcium deficiency.

Calcium is needed for strong bones but it’s not DAIRY that is needed for strong bones. In fact a 12-year study with 70,000+ women (34-59yrs) DID NOT “support the hypothesis that higher consumption of milk or other food sources of calcium by adult women protects against hip or forearm fractures”[1].

Another study concluded that…“Adequate vitamin D intake is associated with a lower risk of osteoporotic hip fractures in postmenopausal women. Neither milk nor a high-calcium diet appears to reduce risk” [2]


But milk is SO healthy for you!!


Well if you think gastrointestinal dysfunction and inflammation is healthy then maybe??? Actually, it has been shown to result in epigenetic changes (that is, changes in gene expression NOT related to genetics). In a 2015 study looking at human breast milk and bovine (cow) milk there were measurable epigenetic changes related to gastrointestinal dysfunction and inflammation from milk-derived opiate peptides in some individuals. [3]

According to studies collected, and analysed, there was an increased risk of Prostate cancer with increased intake of milk and dairy products*, and statistically significant in one. [4]  It is thought that Milk could reasonably cause prostate cancer through the actions of calcium and increased blood levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).

While it seems there is inadequate evidence suggesting cheese is a cause of Colorectal cancer studies go onto say that…”Cheese could plausibly cause colorectal cancer through the indirect mechanisms connected to saturated fats. Saturated fats intake increases insulin production and expression of insulin receptors on colonic cells”. [4]  

I’ll let you digest that one and come to your own conclusion.

*Most studies are carried out in high-income countries where consumption of cow’s milk and its products is high, and where the main dairy product consumed is milk.


But humans are meant to drink (cow’s) milk.


Sorry you’re wrong there. Blunt, I know, but no other way to say it. Cow’s milk is for calves. Just like Mother’s breast-milk is for babies. It is designed for them to help them grow.

Simply… Milk is digested and creates morphine-like substances called ‘exorphins’. Milk’s exorphins are Casein which breaks down to produce Opioid Peptide Casomorphin which imitates the actions of endorphins as they attach to the same opioid receptors in the brain. Endorphins help relieve pain and induce feelings of pleasure.

Now there’s a reason for milk to induce feelings of pleasure as these milk-derived opioids are present in a mother’s milk. That is a mother cow – to its calf, a human mother – to its baby. It is part of the programming to ensure that babies drink their mother’s milk, so they can grow. It is suggested that these milk-derived opioids that induce feelings of pleasure making the ‘baby’  come back for more ensuring survival. Also been suggested that it may induce sedation – and any mother knows that this is good! [5]

But remember this is meant for its natural consumers, namely infants of the same species as the milk producer e.g. Cows to calves, Human mothers to babies.


But can I really get enough Calcium from JUST eating plants?


ABSOLUTELY, because Calcium is a mineral that is found in soil where plants are grown. But you should eat a variety of plants – fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains etc.

While 1 cup milk = 300mg of Calcium, you only absorb about 30% – only 90mg. But with plants, you can absorb a whole lot more e.g.  2 cups of lightly steamed broccoli = 300mg of Calcium, but you absorb about approximately 50% of it PLUS get all the benefits of the FIBRE.

There is no question that DAIRY contains Calcium but it also high in sugar (lactose), saturated fat and high in cholesterol. It can result in skin problems, allergies, and can disrupt the gut microbiome (cows are pumped full of antibiotics)

While vegans have a lower calcium intake than vegetarians and omnivores research reveals that vegans can attain calcium balance.[6]

As with any vitamin or mineral, there are factors that REDUCE and INCREASE Calcium balance in the body that you should be aware of…

Factors that REDUCE calcium balance in the body are; Caffeine, Alcohol, Smoking, Dysbiosis (microbial imbalance), Intestinal Permeability (aka Leaky Gut) and high protein diets (each gram of protein takes out 1mg of Calcium)

Factors that INCREASE calcium balance in the body are; Magnesium, Vitamin D & Weight bearing exercises.

Here are some examples of plant-based foods that contain ample amounts of calcium. There are a lot more but here is a snapshot…

vegan Calcium sources* Source: NUTTAB 2010

So, as you can see, there is no problem getting your Calcium needs met 😉

While the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) of Calcium depends on your age, gender and specific health requirements/conditions, here is a general guide.

All Age/Mg req. daily. 0-6 mths. 210 mg, 7-12 mths. 270 mg, 1-3 yrs. 500mg, 4-8 yrs. 700mg

Male Age/Mg req. daily. 9-11 yrs. 1,000 mg, 12-18 yrs. 1,300mg, 19-70+ yrs.

Female Age/Mg req. daily. 9-11 yrs. 1,000 mg,  12-18 yrs. 1,300mg, 19-70+ yrs.

Pregnancy Age/Mg req. daily. 14-18 yrs. 1,300mg, 19-50 yrs. 1,000mg

Lactation Age/Mg req. daily. 14-18 yrs. 1,300mg, 19-50 yrs. 1,000mg

Any more questions? Comment below and I’ll answer them. Natalie xx


  1. Feskanich, D., Willett, W. C., Stampfer, M. J., & Colditz, G. A. (1997). Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. American journal of public health, 87(6), 992-7.
  2. Feskanich, D., Willett, Colditz, G. A. (2003). Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women. Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA.
  3. Trivedi, M. S., Hodgson, N. W., Walker, S. J., Trooskens, G., Nair, V., & Deth, R. C. (2015). Epigenetic effects of casein-derived opioid peptides in SH-SY5Y human neuroblastoma cells. Nutrition & metabolism, 12, 54. doi:10.1186/s12986-015-0050-1
  4. World Cancer Research Fund American Institute for Cancer Research.(2007). Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective.
  5. Nyberg, F., Carlsson, A., Hallberg, M. Handbook of Biologically Active Peptides. (2013). Casomorphins/Hemorphins.
  6. Kohlenberg-Mueller K, Raschka K. Calcium balance in young adults on a vegan and lactovegetarian diet. J Bone Miner Metab 2003;21:28-33.



Natalie Woodman
Natalie Woodman

NATALIE WOODMAN is a Holistic Nutritionist and Naturopath, affectionately known as the ‘Gut Engineer’ owing to her intimate knowledge of the Digestive System and its workings. Her focus is on Gut (Digestive) Health and the restoration of the Gut Microbiome in the prevention and treatment of numerous health conditions.

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