Hello, Health

10 ways to get enough calcium even if you can't stomach milk

Don't let lactose intolerance lead to the deficiency of the bone-building mineral in your body.

 |  Hello, Health  |  5-minute read |   24-08-2015
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Much as I love milk, have always loved it, I have had to structure my noshing minus this beverage ever since I developed lactose intolerance about 12 years ago. That's when I had to give up soul satisfying mango shakes, cold coffee so strong and frothy that it was a perfect wake-up-my-senses tool, yoghurt chilled to the core… and more such deliciousness. Even more importantly I had to devise ways to ensure enough calcium in my diet, which till then was easy enough (given my love for dairy). But then who says life (or diet) is easy!

First, what is lactose intolerance?

It is a person's inability to digest and absorb the lactose (a type of sugar) in milk. It usually starts suddenly, and at any age in most people, and apparently we (Indians) are quite prone to it. Some statistics show that about 70 per cent of south Indians and 30 per cent of north Indians are affected by the condition. Yes, that many of us cannot depend on dairy the easy way to score source of calcium, and may thus be susceptible to calcium deficiency.

But why do we need calcium?

I presume most of us already know that this mineral is the mainstay for our skeleton's health (our bones and teeth depend on it), but equally importantly it is also needed for proper functioning of literally every cell of our body, particularly nerves, blood, muscles and heart. Calcium by the way also regulates our heartbeat; yes, it's that important.

Scoring enough

Luckily it hasn't been much of a struggle for me to score enough calcium though, as I realised that there are enough other foods one can get enough calcium from. But a lot of people I know do end up missing out on this important mineral when they get lactose intolerant. That's why I decided to write this post.

So how do I get enough calcium (and you can too)?

1. Fortunately, I can tolerate small amounts of lactose, so yoghurt agrees with me and so one cup is a definite part of my daily diet. Everyone can self-test to find out what they can, cannot digest and then take a call accordingly. Most people can tolerate some yoghurt, so figure out what all you can digest. Cheese too usually has lesser lactose, so small amounts agree with many.


2. Then I keep my focus on green leafy vegetables - broccoli, cabbage and yes even okra. Surprised? This understated vegetable is a calcium powerhouse. Spinach though I don't depend on much for calcium as the absorption level is really low (only five per cent compared to say 40-70 per cent from bok choy). By the way leafy greens are high in vitamin K too, which again is good news for the bones.


3. I also eat two dried figs after both lunch and dinner. Why? One this chewy, sweet and sticky dry fruit serves as a perfect dessert, and I score good calcium. Another dessert I totally dig are small til (sesame) ladoos. These unassuming seeds are more than just a hamburger bun decoration - they are a brilliant source of calcium. If you don't have a sweet tooth, you can sprinkle some on to your salads, soups, or even add to your stir fry's. Flax seeds have decent calcium too.


4. I have also deliberately increased the consumption of dried herbs. Not only are they packed with flavour, but are surprisingly calcium dense, too. Thyme, oregano, basil… A tablespoon a day of any of these daily add on the much needed calcium. Just sprinkle on to salads, soups, meat dishes etc.


5. Seven soaked (better absorption of nutrients) almonds every day is a must too and if I feel snacky in the evening, I munch on a few more, as these delicious nuts are the easiest way to load up on calcium.


6. Have consciously developed a taste for tofu too. 'Coz this high protein source is a great source of calcium too. Plus it is incredibly versatile - takes on the flavour of whatever you cook it with. in fact now I always have some in stock; a good substitute to cottage cheese, which gives my stomach jitters.


7. Similarly soy milk has now become my alternative milk to add to my morning cereal, or to just gulp neat in the evening. There are some more alternatives available like almond milk, but I am happy with my soy milk.


8. Old traditional foods like millet and ragi and tapioca are back in my diet and I try and experiment with them to incorporate them as much as possible in my menus; all three are good sources.


9. And here's another secret: Whenever I go to a Japanese restaurant I OD on edamame - immature soybeans in the pod, which is loaded with calcium and make sure I have the seaweed soup. Similarly I definitely order bok choy in a Chinese restaurant. All these are great calcium suppliers.


10. Finally I focus on eating probiotic rich foods and fermented foods as these help the body digest foods better and assimilate more nutrients, including calcium.


There! I told you it is not difficult at all.


Kavita Devgan Kavita Devgan @kavitadevgan

The writer is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don't Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico) and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa).

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