Calcium-Rich Foods for Dairy-Free Diets

As you follow a special diet, be sure to include calcium rich foods.  Calcium is an important nutrient to get, especially when you or your child is on a dairy-free (casein-free) diet.   Calcium is important for strong bones, as well as supporting muscle contraction, heart function, and neurotransmitter release.

Studies show that children with autism are often deficient in calcium.  There are also studies showing that children with autism on special diets are even more deficient in calcium.  While some might make the case that children with autism shouldn’t be on dairy-free diets, I say, “Make the dairy-free diet healthy and calcium rich.”  

For those who say dairy is essential for adequate calcium intake, remember—If someone is unable to digest dairy and unable to absorb the nutrients in the food, it wouldn’t do them any good to eat dairy even though it contains calcium, as they would not be able to absorb it.  Instead, it’s best to avoid dairy and get your calcium from elsewhere.  

Here are some foods rich in calcium and how to include them in your family’s diet:

  • Kelp
  • Dulse
  • Kale, collard greens, and other greens
  • Almonds and other nuts
  • Sunflower seeds (for nut-free schools)
  • Dried figs
  • Broccoli
  • Rutabaga
  • Olives
  • Quinoa and amaranth
  • Fortified non-dairy milk

Kelp and dulse you can buy in granulated form and sprinkle it on food, or buy it in strips and add a piece while cooking broth, soups, or grains.  Dulse imparts a bit of a smoky flavor.  Greens are one of my favorite ways to boost the nutrition content of a meal, as greens are not only high in calcium, but also high in folate, iron, vitamin K, magnesium, and more.  Greens can be chopped finely or pureed and added to burgers or meatballs, stews and soups, broth, pasta sauce, any sautéed vegetable dish, and smoothies.  

Nuts and seeds eaten whole or as a nut butter are good ways to get these calcium rich foods—spread sunflower seed butter on celery and add raisins or currants for “Ants on a log.” Turkish figs are sugary delights and great for snacking—add the paste to desserts.  Broccoli is a kid’s favorite.  Rutabagas are also high in calcium.  Never cooked rutabagas? They are a good addition to stews or try boiling them and adding them to a sweet potato mash.

You can also get calcium from supplementation.  Calcium citrate powder is a common form that can be added to pancakes.

Calcium is an important nutrient to focus on when you are following a dairy-free diet.  How do you ensure your kids get enough calcium?  Share your favorite way in the comments section below.

Julie Matthews is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and Autism Diet Specialist, and author of Nourishing Hope for Autism.  Visit:, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo Credit: Broccoli, Simply in Season: A World Community Cookbook. May 11, 2011

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