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  • Clare Backhouse

Global nutrition: non-dairy calcium for infants

The other day my friend Martha emailed me with a nutrition question. A normal occurrence, but for the fact that she wrote from Venezuela, where she's living at the heart of a food crisis.

Her question jolted me out of my nutritional comfort-zone: what should she advise her young mum friends to do, now that cow's milk supplies are cut off?

Venezuela's troubles mean that many foods are no longer available, or affordable. And one of them is milk. Neither fresh nor powdered milk is an option. What could mothers do to ensure their children still have calcium for strong bones and teeth?

I confess I felt completely humbled by this question. How terrible that first-world debates, like vegan-vs-paleo, can so easily overshadow one's consciousness of hunger and basic needs around the world.

At any rate, I was galvanised into speedy action. And the results surprised me.

First of all, I realised that many Venezuelan women were not aware that prolonging breast-feeding after 6 months could be an alternative to buying cow's milk. In fact, if a mother can consume 1250 mg of calcium per day and continue breastfeeding until her child is two years old, this actually replaces the need for cow's milk. It also accords with the most recent WHO guidelines on child nutrition.

So the question remained - how should Venezuelan mothers acquire enough calcium to continue breastfeeding their children after 6 months old?

I discovered that they still had access to sardines, which are an excellent source of calcium and also provide vitamin D and essential omega-3 fatty acids. Together with other available foods like bone-broth, it seemed just possible that young Venezuelan mothers might be able to support their children's health better than they feared.

Inspired by my friend's request, I decided to compile the following list of top non-dairy calcium foods. Many of them also contain nutrients such as vitamin K, vitamin D, and magnesium, which are essential to consume in order for the body to use calcium effectively.

1. Sardines, salmon, anchovies, pilchards – any oily fish where you can eat the bones. These are also excellent sources of vitamin D, which organises calcium in the body, and omega 3 fats, which prevent inflammation.

2. Sesame seeds, 2 tablespoons, ground or soaked; they contain magnesium as well.

3. Dark green leafy vegetables, eg kale and broccoli, 1.5 cups steamed per day; also contain vitamin K.

4. Scallops – 100g gives you all the calcium you need in a day.

5. Seaweed – this also supplies iodine, which is essential for mothers and babies.

6. Almonds – these also supply magnesium.

7. Bone broth made from fish, meat or chicken bones.

8. Cooked rhubarb - one cup contains more calcium than milk and provides vitamins C and K too.

9. Whitebait fish

The tables in the following document show how to acquire enough calcium per day from food:

Finally - if you would like to find out how you can join me in supporting Martha and her friends as they help feed the poorest in Venezuela's unfolding food crisis, do get in touch. She's doing amazing work.

To your best of health,


Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT, Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC

Consultations in London, in West Sussex, and online

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