BY Alyse

Dairy Foods: Are They Essential to Prevent Osteoporosis?

It is common knowledge that dairy products are good sources of calcium and that eating a diet rich in calcium can reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis (a thinning of the bones). Despite these well-known facts, some individuals still opt for a dairy-free diet. Reasons for avoiding dairy may include following a vegan diet or being allergic to dairy products. Are individuals who avoid dairy at a greater risk for developing osteoporosis or are there other ways to meet their calcium requirements?


The Osteoporosis – Calcium Connection
Osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become fragile and more likely to break, affects about 10 million Americans, primarily older women; about 34 million more Americans have low bone mass, which increases osteoporosis risk. Although calcium consumption is not the only predictor of osteoporosis, inadequate calcium intake can definitely increase one’s risk. The following explains this phenomenon.

Calcium is an integral part of your bones. In fact, 99% of the calcium in your body is located in your bones. The remaining 1% of calcium is in your blood and soft tissues. Your body always tries to maintain the blood calcium level within a very narrow range for normal physiological functioning. If you are not getting enough calcium from your diet, a hormone in your body stimulates certain cells to break down bone and release calcium in order to keep the blood calcium level constant. This leads to the depletion of calcium from the bones, which increases the risk of osteoporosis.

Therefore, in order to protect your bones’ calcium reserves, you need to consume an adequate intake of dietary calcium.

How much calcium do you need and where can you get it?

  • Target intake (depending on age and gender): 1,000-1,300mg per day
  • Dairy products are among the best sources of calcium. Usually, one serving of milk, yogurt, or cheese contains up to 30% of the recommended daily calcium intake.


Dairy Food Sources:

Food Serving Size Calcium
Milk 1 Cup 300mg
Yogurt 1 Cup 250-300mg
Cheese 1 Slice 150-300mg

While many people believe that consuming dairy products is required to prevent osteoporosis, this is not true. In fact, research shows no association between drinking milk and preventing osteoporosis. Dairy foods are NOT the only dietary sources of calcium. In fact, many people across the globe who do not develop osteoporosis do NOT consume dairy products. So, where do they get calcium?

Animal Food Sources:

Food Serving Size Calcium
Salmon with bones 3 ounces 170mg
Shrimp, canned 3 ounces 100mg
Sardines with bones 3 ounces 30mg

(Bones are what contain calcium!!)

But, what if you are a strict vegetarian or vegan? Besides getting calcium from supplements, you can also get it from many plant sources. In fact, you may be eating many calcium-rich foods without even knowing! The most noteworthy fruits and vegetables are oranges, apricots, raisins, dried figs, broccoli, okra, sweet potatoes and most dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, Chinese cabbage and bok choy. Calcium is significant in various nuts and seeds, as well as beans, peas, soy products, seaweeds, sprouts and molasses. Even some herbs, such as alfalfa, cayenne, chamomile, kelp, lemongrass, paprika, parsley and peppermint contain calcium. The following table includes some examples of calcium-rich plant foods and their calcium content.

Calcium-Rich Plant Foods:

Food Serving Calcium
Collard Greens, cooked 1 cup 357mg
Turnip Greens, cooked 1 cup 249mg
Mustard Greens, cooked 1 cup 152mg
Chard, boiled 1 cup 101mg
Kale, fresh, boiled 1 cup 94mg
Lettuce, Romaine 2 cups 40mg
Chinese cabbage, cooked 1 cup 476mg
Broccoli, cooked 1 cup 94mg
Spinach, cooked 1 cup 230mg
Bok Choy, cooked 1 cup 158mg
Rhubarb, cooked 1 cup 348mg
Almonds 0.25 cup 88mg
Sesame Seeds 0.25 cup 351mg
Tofu, calcium fortified 4 ounces 258mg
Green snap/string beans, boiled 1 cup 58mg
Pinto beans, cooked 1 cup 82mg
Garbonzo beans, cooked 1 cup 80mg
Red Beans, cooked 1 cup 82mg
Navy Beans, cooked 1 cup 127mg
White Beans, cooked 1 cup 226mg
Juice, calcium-fortified 1 cup 300mg
Oranges 1 cup 72mg
Raisins 3.5 ounces 62mg
Apricots, dried 3.5 ounces 67mg
Figs, dried 3.5 ounces 126mg
Molasses, dark (213 calories) 100gm 684mg


Avoid calcium robbers
As important as it is to consume calcium-rich foods, it is also important to avoid certain substances that block calcium absorption, or rob calcium from our bones. These substances include:

  • Caffeine – Caffeine can briefly increase the amount of calcium excreted in the urine
  • Salt (sodium) – Increased sodium intake results in increased loss of calcium in the urine
  • Excessive protein intake can contribute to calcium loss through urine
  • Smoking increases calcium excretion
  • Alcohol can leach calcium out of bones
  • Oxalic acid – Unfortunately, some foods that are high in calcium are also high in oxalic acid, which interferes with calcium absorption. These foods include spinach, rhubarb, almonds, cashews, and beet and turnip greens. Adding a teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar to the cooking liquid of these vegetables can help to release some of the calcium for absorption. However, it is still preferable not to overindulge in foods with high oxalic content.


Although individuals who choose to be dairy-free are missing out on numerous calcium-rich dairy products, they are not necessarily at greater risk for developing osteoporosis. Recommended calcium intake can be met by consuming various plant-based calcium-rich foods. Meeting your daily calcium requirement can be as easy as adding a serving of calcium-fortified tofu, a few cups of dark green leafy vegetables, a handful of nuts, and a cup of calcium-fortified soy milk to your meal plans. To maximize your calcium absorption, just beware of calcium robbers in your diet. One last safeguard to ensure adequate calcium consumption is to take a daily calcium supplement. However, supplements are not a substitute for food. Natural sources of calcium are always best.