Calcium Sources In A Dairy-Free Breastfeeding Diet

  • Maria Conte Master's degree, Human Nutrition, Università San Raffaele, Italy

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Introduction

Breastfeeding is delicate for mothers and babies. If you, or someone close, are having this experience right now, you may wonder how to adjust your diet to support and give your baby all the nutrients needed for health and growth. 

This may be particularly challenging if you require a special diet (like a dairy-free one) where you have to avoid certain foods and find alternative sources of key nutrients.

In this article, we will discuss the calcium sources in a dairy-free breastfeeding diet, explaining why calcium is important for mothers and babies and why you have to ensure an adequate intake. 

Why calcium matters for breastfeeding mothers

Calcium is essential for growth and health; in the body, it covers many different functions, from muscular contractions to bone health. In bone metabolism, calcium acts in concert with other components, such as Vitamin D, parathyroid hormone, and calcitonin, and a complex system is in place to maintain the balance between absorption and loss.1  

In delicate phases like pregnancy and lactation, the calcium requirement is particularly high.

Changes in maternal hormonal levels compensate for the extra demand for calcium.  Calcium is essential to support the growth and development of the baby and to maintain the mother’s bone health. It is also essential for the production of breast milk. During lactation, there is a transfer of calcium from the mother to the baby; an average of 250-300 mg, this can result in a loss of the mother’s calcium stores.  Maintaining optimal calcium levels through a balanced diet is crucial to ensure the well-being of both the lactating mother and her baby.2

Daily calcium requirement and dairy-free diets

According to the British Academic Association, the daily calcium intake during lactation is 1250 mg.3  

Dairy products, like cheese and yoghurt, are a common source of calcium. 

However, a dairy-free diet may be required in some circumstances, such as in those with:

  • Lactose intolerance, where lactose is not properly digested due to an enzyme deficiency and different gastrointestinal symptoms occurring;
  • Cow’s milk allergy, a common childhood food allergy;
  • Vegan diet.

In these cases, you need to avoid dairy products and look for alternative non-dairy sources of calcium. Following a dairy-free diet can be particularly challenging during breastfeeding.4 Fortunately, there are many alternatives available nowadays. 

Dairy-free calcium sources for breastfeeding

Dairy-free calcium sources include natural foods and products that have been “fortified” with calcium, meaning that extra calcium has been added to them.3 These can include but are not limited to:

  • Fruits like oranges, dried figs, dried apricots
  • Vegetables like broccoli, curry kale and spring greens
  • Nuts like almonds
  • Legumes such as chickpeas and beans
  • Bread and anything made with fortified flours and fortified cereals
  • Tinned sardines and salmon
  • Fortified plant-based alternatives: soy, oat, almond drinks and yoghurts
  • Tofu (only if set with calcium instead of nigari)

For more information on other sources of calcium that can be included in your diet, The British Association of UK Dieticians has a list of more foods available, including the calcium content per typical serving.

When buying products,  some good advice is to always check the food labels. This is particularly important in case of allergy, as cow’s milk is often used as an ingredient in pre-packaged foods and drinks.  Unpackaged foods, like bakery products, restaurant/café meals and takeaways, may not have a label, but you can always ask for ingredient and allergen information to ensure that no milk or other dairy is present.4

Don’t forget vitamin D

As already mentioned, calcium is not the only nutrient essential for bone metabolism. Vitamin D is also important, especially in regulating the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body and the absorption of calcium from foods. Without enough vitamin D, you cannot absorb the calcium, even if you have a calcium-rich diet.5

A vitamin D deficiency may affect children's bone development and cause a condition known as rickets. For this reason, during breastfeeding it’s essential to ensure an adequate intake of vitamin D along with calcium. The main source of vitamin D is sunlight. Some foods also contain vitamin D and, like calcium, you may also find fortified products.  

Recipes and meal ideas

To ensure that your dairy-free breastfeeding diet is balanced and nutritious, include a variety of calcium-rich foods, as well as other nutrient-dense options. Plan your meals with a combination of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and fortified products. Here you will find simple and nutritious recipes to meet your calcium needs while following a dairy-free diet.

  • Breakfast: start your day with a calcium-rich smoothie by blending almond milk, kale, frozen berries, and a scoop of fortified plant-based yoghurt, garnished with chia seeds. 
  • Morning snack: enjoy a handful of almonds and an orange, both great sources of calcium.  
  • Lunch: prepare a quinoa salad with chickpeas, spinach, and tahini dressing. 
  • Afternoon snack: calcium-fortified plant-based yoghurt with fruits and nuts or sliced cucumber and hummus as a savoury option. 
  • Dinner: tofu stir-fry with broccoli, bok choy, and sesame seeds, served over brown rice. 

Don’t forget to stay hydrated, get enough protein, and consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian if you need help to ensure that your dietary choices meet your and your baby's nutritional needs.

Supplements and calcium absorption

Supplements should not be used as a substitute for a balanced and varied diet and, as remembered also by the British Dietetic Association, “it is best to get enough calcium from food”. 

However, if you are unable to meet your daily requirements through diet alone, you may get a supplement. If in doubt, discuss your options with a doctor or other healthcare professional.

Summary

In conclusion, breastfeeding is a precious and vital period in a mother and baby's life, and maintaining a nutritious diet is crucial to ensure the health and growth of both. 

When following a dairy-free diet, which may be necessary due to lactose intolerance, cow's milk allergy, or personal dietary choices like veganism, it's essential to find alternative sources of calcium to meet the increased demands during lactation. 

Calcium plays a pivotal role in supporting the baby's development and preserving the mother's bone health. Fortunately, there are numerous dairy-free sources of calcium, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fortified products, and plant-based alternatives.

While supplements should be a last resort, they can be considered if dietary intake falls short under the guidance of a healthcare professional. 

Breastfeeding mothers must prioritize their own nutritional needs to ensure they and their babies thrive during this special phase of life.

FAQs

Can I get enough calcium on a dairy-free diet while breastfeeding?

Yes, there are various non-dairy sources of calcium, including fortified plant-based products, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. By incorporating these foods into your diet, you can meet your calcium requirements and support both your health and your baby's development.

What are some calcium-rich dairy alternatives for breastfeeding mothers?

Dairy alternatives for calcium in a breastfeeding diet include fortified plant-based products such as almond milk, soy milk, and yoghurt, as well as calcium-set tofu. Additionally, you can source calcium from fruits like oranges and dried figs, vegetables like broccoli and kale, nuts like almonds, and legumes like chickpeas. 

How much calcium do I need while breastfeeding, and how does it differ from when I'm not breastfeeding?

The daily calcium requirement during lactation is around 1250 mg, which is higher than the average recommended daily intake for adults. 

Should I consider calcium supplements while on a dairy-free diet during breastfeeding?

Supplements should not be your first choice. It's best to obtain calcium from your diet. However, if you find it challenging to meet your daily calcium requirements through food alone, consult with a healthcare professional before considering supplements. They can advise you on the appropriate dosage if necessary.

What other nutrients should I pay attention to besides calcium while breastfeeding?

In addition to calcium, it's important to focus on vitamin D, as it plays a vital role in calcium absorption. Ensure you get enough sunlight exposure and include vitamin D-rich foods or fortified products in your diet. It's also essential to maintain a balanced, varied diet that provides adequate nutrition for both you and your baby during this critical stage of life.

References

  1. Yu E, Sharma S. Physiology, calcium. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482128/
  2. Heringhausen J, Montgomery KS. Continuing education module—maternal calcium intake and metabolism during pregnancy and lactation. J Perinat Educ [Internet]. 2005 [cited 27 October 2023];14(1):52–7. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1595236/
  3.  BDA. Calcium [Internet]. [cited 27 October 2023]. Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/calcium.html
  4.  Milton Keynes University Hospital [Internet]. [cited 27 October 2023]. Following a milk-free diet while breastfeeding. Available at: https://www.mkuh.nhs.uk/patient-information-leaflet/following-a-milk-free-diet-while-breastfeeding
  5.  BDA. Vitamin d [Internet]. [cited 27 October 2023]. Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/vitamin-d.html

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Maria Conte

Master's degree, Human Nutrition, Università San Raffaele, Italy

Maria is a pharmacist with a long experience in pharmaceutical companies. Her expertise focuses in particular on drug safety and benefit-risk evaluation. She has also cultivated a strong interest in health, movement and nutrition, that led her first to a postgrad certification in "Stress. Sport and nutrition" and then to a full MSc in "Human Nutrition".
Maria has always had a passion for writing and she strongly believes that through effective communication we can improve patients’ lives and have a positive impact on the world.

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