Topics » Nutrition Science » How to Get Calcium Without Dairy
T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

Because of some of the evidence suggesting milk is unhealthy, I suggest you skip the cow’s milk. However this does not mean that calcium is unimportant. Calcium is vital for bone health.

Bone health is incredibly complex. It involves many other nutrients besides calcium—protein, phosphorus, vitamin D, sodium, etc.—plus lifestyle factors like exercise, but calcium is the one that comes up most often when we think of bone health. Government-recommended calcium intakes are controversial and could be the topic of a long discussion, but the bottom line is that individuals should consume at least 500 milligrams of calcium daily from a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet.

One European study found that vegans had a 30 percent higher risk of fracture compared to meat eaters, but the vegans also had a significantly lower calcium intake than the other groups.[1] When the researchers only considered vegans who ate at least 525 milligrams of calcium daily, they found no increased fracture risk.

If you are following a WFPB lifestyle, you can get over 500 milligrams of calcium a day without thinking twice about it. The chart below shows the calcium content of many different plants, with whole milk listed for comparison.

Food (amount) Calcium (mg)
Whole milk (1 cup) 276
Whole dried sesame seeds (1 tbsp) 88
Mature raw soybean (0.5 cup) 258
Mature raw white bean (0.5 cup) 242
Almonds (10 whole nuts) 32
Boiled and drained frozen collard greens (0.5 cup) 178
Cooked teff (1 cup) 123
Raw navy beans (0.5 cup) 153
Boiled and drained mustard spinach (0.5 cup) 142
Boiled and drained frozen kale (1 cup) 179
Shredded, cooked Chinese cabbage (1 cup) 158
Cooked brown rice (1 cup) 20
Whole grain wheat flour (1 cup) 41
Boiled and drained Broccoli (½ cup) 31
Cooked red tomato (1 medium tomato) 14
Raw Florida orange (1 orange) 61
Raw sweet potato (1 cup) 40
Whole wheat cooked spaghetti (1 cup) 21

Source: USDA nutrient database

Certain greens are particularly rich in calcium, but all whole plants have some calcium. Consider also that the absorption of calcium varies. We absorb roughly a third of calcium in milk or calcium supplements.[2] Some low-oxalate greens have a significantly higher proportion of absorbable calcium: kale, mustard and turnip greens, bok choy, and broccoli, to name a few. Some beans and high-oxalate greens like spinach have a lower percentage of absorbable calcium, though they have relatively high total calcium.[3]

If your calories all come from whole plant-based foods, including plenty of fruits, greens, beans, and other vegetables, you need not fret about calcium requirements or do any fancy math or milligram counting. You’ll be fine. But what about the many people who avoid greens, beans, and other vegetables?

About 75 percent of the calcium in the standard American diet comes from dairy foods.[3] If you cut all dairy foods, you must replace them with healthy foods, which some people neglect to do. I worry about vegans (or omnivores who avoid dairy) who mostly eat processed foods, including unfortified snacks and grain-based foods laden with added sugar, fat, and salt. These vegans are often trying to transition to a healthier diet but aren’t yet digging the daily cup of beans or cooked greens I recommend (I suggest these amounts as minimums). I’m guessing these are the types of diets linked to higher fracture rates represented in the European study mentioned above.

For these individuals, I suggest consuming certain fortified foods daily. For example, many unsweetened nondairy milks are highly fortified with calcium. These are the easiest calcium sources. Many cereals and juices are also fortified, and tofu often has a high calcium content.

Lastly, lest we get carried away with calcium obsession, it bears repeating that bone health is strongly influenced by other dietary and lifestyle factors. Exercise, particularly in adolescence, is especially important; exercise in adolescence may even be more important to adult bone mineral content than calcium intake, so get outside, get a reasonable amount of sunshine, and use those bones![4] (Reinforcing this recommendation is the fact that vitamin D, obtained from moderate sunshine exposure, plays a critical role in your body’s ability to absorb calcium.[5])

I discuss calcium in greater detail in my book The Campbell Plan, but if you only follow the recommendations for bone health in this article, you will be fine. (If you have a specific condition that might alter your calcium needs, discuss it with your physician.) You will also enjoy the numerous side effects of consuming healthy calcium sources. Fruits, beans, greens, and other vegetables offer multitudes of nutrients working together to promote health in numerous ways. When you eat well for your bones, you also eat well for your heart, brain, kidneys, and just about every organ in your body. So leave the baby cow food aside and eat the foods designed and packaged by nature for humans.


  1. Appleby P, Roddam A, Allen N, Key T. Comparative fracture risk in vegetarians and nonvegetarians in EPIC-Oxford. Eur J Clin Nutr 2007;61:1400-6.
  2. Keller JL, Lanou A, Barnard ND. The consumer cost of calcium from food and supplements. J Am Diet Assoc 2002;102:1669-71.
  3. Weaver CM, Proulx WR, Heaney R. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;70:543S-8S.
  4. Lanou AJ, Berkow SE, Barnard ND. Calcium, dairy products, and bone health in children and young adults: a reevaluation of the evidence. Pediatrics 2005;115:736-43.
  5. Khazai N, Judd SE, Tangpricha V. Calcium and vitamin D: skeletal and extraskeletal health. Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2008;10(2):110-117. doi:10.1007/s11926-008-0020-y

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