Say Bye to Milk – A Table of Calcium-Rich Substitutes!

In my last two blogs we learned that the old axiom “Milk, does a body good” simply doesn’t hold water (or milk?). The slogan is just that, a slogan; propagated heavily by the for-profit milk enterprise. It took advantage of some loose science, but was mostly a success in marketing, not public health.

When I was a kid, I basically lived off of milk—more specifically, 2% milk. Towards the end of high school, I did the unspeakable. I switched to non-fat. Yes, it tasted like water at first, but I got used to it and continued to enjoy milk in my breakfast cereal. For another decade I kept my non-fat milk/cereal routine, gravitating towards healthier cereals such as unsweetened Grape Nuts, whole wheat Cheerios, and corn flakes as I grew older (and wiser!). However, after taking a couple nutrition courses in grad school and reading a few books by leading nutritionist, I realized milk was an unnecessary part of my diet. It was time to kick the habit!

Around that time my girlfriend introduced me to almond milk. I decided to give it a go. It was a great substitute as I could hardly tell the difference! Yet California was deep in a drought, and almonds were a very water-intensive crop mostly sourced from the arid state. Did I need milk at all? Did I need cereal? A self-administered dietary survey from a couple months back had already showed I was eating too much grain and too little fruit. Perhaps this was the perfect opportunity for a positive dietary change—mixed fruit for breakfast! And so it went. Three years later, I haven’t looked back. I haven’t missed milk, and I haven’t missed cereal. And nor has my body.

See the table below for some great calcium-rich alternatives. A multi-vitamin or calcium supplement is another way to meet your daily calcium needs.  

Calcium (milligrams)
Collards, frozen, boiled
1 cup
Orange Juice, Calcium-fortified
1 cup
Oatmeal, instant
2 packs
Milk, skim
1 cup
Figs, dried
10 medium
1/2 cup
Spinach, boiled
1 cup
Canned salmon
3 oz
Cheese, American
1 oz
White Beans, boiled
1 cup
1 2-oz piece
Black turtle beans, boiled
1 cup
Swiss chard, boiled
1 cup
Iceberg lettuce
1 head
Green peas, boiled
1 cup
Broccoli, boiled
1 cup
Soy milk
1 cup
1 cup
1 oz (24 nuts)

To see the calcium content of more foods, and compare them with dairy, visit Harvard’s The Nutrition Source website.

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Shahir Masri, Sc.D.
Environmental Health Scientist


Milk, Calcium & the Bones

In my last blog I talked about the drawbacks of milk consumption. Well, what about the benefits? What about the perks of calcium?  True, milk is a rich source of calcium. However, there is no calcium scarcity in the U.S.  In fact, America nearly tops the list when it comes to per capita calcium intake. Television commercials and ads that tell you otherwise, often with the remedy being three glasses of milk per day, are sponsored by the National Dairy Council. Not exactly a neutral source on the issue.

Bone strength depends on calcium—so the more the better, right? According to Dr. Walter Willett, who chairs the Dept of Nutrition at Harvard, “there is no solid evidence that merely increasing the amount of milk in your diet will protect you from breaking a hip or wrist or crushing a backbone in later years.” This is particularly relevant to those with osteoporosis. While daily calcium recommendations exist (1000-1300 mg/day), it remains unclear what the proper intake is. Interestingly, countries with the highest calcium intake tend to have higher, not lower, hip fracture rates. In a major U.S. study1, women who drank 2+ glasses of milk/day were at least as likely to break a hip or forearm as woman who drank 1 glass/week or less. This was true for men in another major study2. Dr. Willett cautions that all the hype surrounding calcium intake is distracting us from strategies that really work to prevent fractures, such as exercise, certain medications, and (for women) hormone replacement therapy.

Let’s briefly touch on vitamin-D, which is needed for calcium uptake by the body. Most foods don’t naturally contain this vitamin. However, milk and other dairy products are fortified with vitamin-D. Does this underscore the need to consume calcium rich, vitamin-D fortified dairy products? Not exactly. If you live in southern California or other the low latitudes areas (within 40 of equator) and spend reasonable time outdoors (no need to tan!) then you’re getting enough vitamin-D from the sun. For everyone else, a simple multivitamin containing vitamin-D is enough to do the trick. Importantly, these supplements don’t come with the unnecessary saturated fat, galactose, and calories that milk and other dairy products contain.

In summary, milk delivers a lot more than just calcium to the body. And these “other” ingredients are of concern.  Calcium and vitamin-D can be obtained in much healthier ways. In my next blog I’ll highlight a number of foods that are both healthy and rich in calcium to enable you to make some healthy changes!

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                                               Shahir Masri, Sc.D.
                                               Environmental Health Scientist

Studies Cities
  1. Nurses’ Health Study
  2. Health Professionals Follow-up Study