Lactose Intolerant? Tips For Getting Enough Calcium

Monday, October 23, 2006 - 2:04pm

By Katie Clark, MPH, RD

If you are lactose intolerant, getting enough calcium from your diet can be challenging. Dairy products contain the most concentrated sources of calcium. However, these are the same foods that cause you uncomfortable gastrointestinal side effects. If you are trying to increase your dietary calcium intake but suffer from lactose intolerance, try these tips.

Cheese is a good source of calcium

In order to digest dairy products, your body needs an enzyme called lactase. This enzyme breaks down the milk sugar called lactose. People who are lactose intolerant either make too little lactase, or they don’t make any at all. If your body cannot break down lactose, you will experience gas and bloating.

Cheese is a good source of calcium; an average one-ounce serving has two-thirds the calcium contained in a glass of milk. Some people with lactose intolerance can digest aged, ripened hard cheeses without much GI trouble. How is that possible? During the processing and ripening of cheese a lot of the lactose is removed. As a result, certain types of hard cheeses are almost entirely lactose-free. Try slowly introducing natural, aged cheeses into your diet, preferably in combination with other foods to gradually improve your calcium intake.

Alternative milks are more easily digestible

Lactose intolerant people often have the most difficultly digesting milk. Luckily, there are milk alternatives that provide good sources of calcium. One cup of each of these alternatives has almost the same amount of calcium as a cup of cow’s milk:

  • Soy milk. Soy milk is the by-product of pressed, fermented soy beans. While soy beans do not naturally contain calcium, today almost all commercial soy milks are fortified with calcium.
  • Lactaid milk. Lactase enzyme has been added to this milk to begin the breakdown of lactose. The result is a milk product that is slightly sweeter than regular milk, but that can be entirely lactose-free.
  • Acidophilus milk. Bacteria are introduced into this milk to promote the conversion of lactose to lactic acid. This process results in a lower-lactose milk product.

Other dietary sources of calcium

While it is true that mammalian milk products are the best source of dietary calcium, there still are other places to get calcium in your diet.

  • Tofu. Check the label: if your tofu has been prepared with a calcium-containing salt, it is a good source of calcium.
  • Bones. Try canned salmon with bones or sardines. By eating the bones of these fish, you are consuming their calcium deposits and ingesting a pretty good serving of dietary calcium.
  • Yogurt. In a fermentation process similar to that of making acidophilus milk, some lactose is converted to lactic acid. As a result, yogurt may be easier for you to digest than milk.
  • Fortified foods. These days, many foods are fortified with calcium. Look for calcium-fortified cereals and juices. The type of calcium found in fortified foods is not as well absorbed as naturally occurring calcium, but it is still a good option.

Meeting your calcium goal

Most adults need approximately 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day to promote optimal bone health. Because whole foods are loaded with additional nutrients, try getting your calcium from foods instead of supplements. By reading labels and looking for non-dairy sources of calcium, even lactose intolerant people can meet their dietary calcium needs.