Perhaps you are one of the estimated 65% of the world’s population who is lactose intolerant, or you have a milk allergy. Or you choose not to consume dairy products for other health, environmental, or personal reasons. Whatever the reason, rest assured that you can have a healthful diet with or without dairy.
Why Have Dairy at All?
Health professionals tend to push dairy on the masses because it’s an abundant and convenient source of both calcium and vitamin D. Three 8-oz glasses of milk per day provide nearly all of the calcium and about two-thirds of the vitamin D required by most adults. Calcium and vitamin D are essential for bone health, and needs for these vitamins can easily be met from a combination of natural dairy-free sources and fortified foods. See the list below for 5 important foods to incorporate into your dairy-free diet today.
- Fortified Soy Milk
Fortified soymilk can also be an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. It has a calorie and protein content similar to that of milk. In fact, the most recent 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) suggest that we all enjoy several servings of dairy OR soy milk each day as an important food group. Ounce for ounce, several brands of fortified soymilk also contain more calcium and Vitamin D than cow’s milk. Recent research suggests the calcium found in many soymilks is just as absorbable as that found in cow’s milk.
Tip: Soymilk with “calcium carbonate” in the ingredients list seems to be best absorbed according to one study.
- Bok Choy (or Kale)
What is bok choy you ask? This is a delicious, somehow crispy yet creamy Chinese cabbage found in many American and international supermarkets. Bok choy is easy to prepare and cooks relatively quickly compared to other leafy greens. Even though it contains less calcium than a glass of milk, it is in a form that is more absorbable. A little more than 1 cup of cooked Bok choy will provide you with the same amount of calcium as an 8 oz glass of milk. If you’re just not feeling (or can’t find) the bok choy, about 1.5 cups of cooked kale or 3 cups of raw kale will provide an equivalent amount of calcium.
Tip: You can sauté or quick steam bok choy in about 5 minutes. Enjoy it when the greens are just wilted and the stems are crisp-tender. Sauté with garlic and add a dash of soy sauce when it’s done.
- Calcium and Vitamin D Fortified Orange Juice
Who doesn’t love a glass of refreshing orange juice? Making the switch from regular 100% orange juice to calcium and vitamin D fortified 100% orange juice is practically mindless and tasteless. One recent study suggests that you would need to drink about 8-12 oz, depending on the brand, to absorb the same amount of calcium as you would from a glass of milk. However, many fortified OJ brands do contain more Vitamin D per glass than cow’s milk.
Tip: Choose orange juice with “calcium hydroxide”, “malic acid”, and “citric acid” added for best absorption.
- Canned Salmon
This super fish shows up on nearly every list of foods to eat more often and for good reason. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults and older children enjoy at least 8 oz of fish every week. Salmon is a particularly good choice because it is lower in mercury compared to other kinds of fish, and contains essential heart healthy fats in addition to plenty of Vitamin D. One six-ounce portion of Sockeye salmon with bones contains almost as much calcium as a glass of milk and 8x the amount vitamin D, which is more than enough to meet your daily needs for this vitamin.
- Calcium Set Tofu
The list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning this calcium packed super star. About 2/3 cup of cooked tofu is equivalent to an 8 oz serving of milk. Make sure that the tofu is “calcium set” or prepared in calcium by checking the nutrition label. Tofu is a versatile soybean curd that absorbs the flavor of whatever dish you put it in. Try cutting it up in little cubes to add to soup, stir frying it with veggies and teriyaki sauce, or even blending it up in a smoothie for creamier texture.
Tip: Buy “firm or extra-firm” tofu for stir-fry or soups and “soft” tofu for use in smoothies.
Including the above foods on a regular basis can help you receive the calcium and Vitamin D you need each day, without having a drop of dairy. Keep in mind that though many foods not on this list also contain calcium, they may have high levels of phytates, oxalates, and other food components that prevent you from absorbing most of the calcium. Do your research before replacing dairy in your diet, to make sure you are selecting high quality sources of calcium and vitamin D.
What about almond milk? At the time of writing, limited evidence exists that almond milk contains calcium and Vitamin D in forms that can be well absorbed compared to cow’s milk. For this reason, the top five sources in this article are limited to foods/beverages with evidence-based literature to support that they contain calcium and/or vitamin D in a form that is relatively absorbable. Please see the hyperlinks above for direct literature sources.