FAQs: How will I get calcium on a Paleo diet?

Diane Sanfilippo Dairy and Dairy Free, FAQs, Featured, Health & Wellness 40 Comments

Those looking to make the move to a Paleo Diet often question the nutritional value of “this way of eating.” One of the assumptions is that, without dairy foods included, the overall diet will be very low in calcium.

I recently created a comparison of a day's worth of meals on the USDA recommended diet versus a Paleo diet for children so that we can have real numbers to view first-hand. [1,2] I designed the example based on recommendations for children as many people who are concerned about calcium are most concerned about it for growing kids, but you'll note that the foods eaten are pretty standard and an average adult could conceivably be eating as it adds up to roughly 2,000 calories for each example. You can enter a day's worth of your own meals and see how it stacks up. Perhaps if you're not eating many calcium rich foods (dark leafy greens, sardines and properly prepared sesame seeds or tahini to name a few), now's the time to evaluate and update your intake.

Note: To view the USDA worksheet for recommended Kids’ nutrition, click here. [3] A Paleo diet has no set rules for consumption other than to eliminate grains, legumes and dairy and to focus on quality meats, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.

How does the Paleo diet stack up in calcium?

We can see in a day’s worth if USDA meals that the RDA is slightly exceeded at 123%, while the Paleo diet (PD) comes a lot closer than parents might assume at 90%. Now, I wasn’t specifically searching for calcium-rich foods when I calculated this day, but you can see how a child can easily come close to the RDA for calcium without a DROP of dairy in his or her daily diet. That said, even at 90% of the RDA, the amount of calcium that’ll be absorbed by the child’s body is likely going to be much higher since the cofactors for calcium absorption are higher across the board in the PD day. Vitamin and mineral cofactors required for calcium absorption include Vitamin D (56% in Paleo vs 12% in USDA) and Magnesium (103% in Paleo vs 87% in USDA). So, by allowing a child to eat a diet that is not only fairly high in calcium from non-dairy sources but also providing balanced nutrition to allow for the absorption of calcium, it’s clear that the need for dairy in the diet as a calcium source is overstated and inaccurate. [4] Furthermore, studies show that the phytic acid in grains (specifically whole wheat products in one study) reduces the absorption of dietary calcium from milk products, which would likely then leave the USDA diet at a much lower level of bio-available calcium than the PD. [5]

Balanced Bites Food QualityIf you are lactose intolerant, wish to follow a strict Paleo diet, or find that dairy just isn't an ideal food choice for you for a myriad of reasons (from allergies to proper handling of the animals providing the milk) obtaining calcium from other sources may be a good idea. If you tolerate dairy well, meaning you experience no digestive discomfort (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, etc.), no histamine response (mucous build-up, sniffling, coughing, etc.) then choosing raw/unpasteurized grass-fed sources are ideal. Click here for more info on food quality choices.


Item Calcium mg per 100g serving % DV Portion Size Notes Other notable nutrients…
sardines 382 38% 1c= 149g Vitamin D, Niacin, B12, Phosphorous, Selenium
nopales (cooked) 165 16% 1c= 149g Magnesium, Manganese
collard greens (cooked) 140 14% 1c= 190g Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Vitamin C, Folate, Manganese
turnip greens (cooked) 137 14% 1c= 144g Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Folate
spinach (cooked) 136 14% 1c= 180g Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Folate, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese
sesame seeds 975 98% (see serving size) 1Tbsp= 9g (87.8mg of calcium) Iron (non-heme), Magnesium, Phosphorus, Copper, Manganese, Zinc, Thiamin, Niacin, B6, Folate


[1] USDA day: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/recipe/2202570/2?nc=1&autosave=form.info.autosave
[2] Paleo Diet day: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/recipe/2205032/2?nc=1&autosave=form.info.autosave
[3] My Pyramid Worksheet: http://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/Resources/mpk_worksheet.pdf
[4] Abrams, et al. Calcium and magnesium balance in 9-14 year-old children American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1997), vol. 66 no. 5 1172-1177.
[5] Weaver, et al. Human calcium absorption from whole-wheat products. The Journal of Nutrition (1991), 0022-3166/91.
[6] NutritionData.com – http://nutritiondata.self.com/tools/nutrient-search
[7] WH Foods – http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrient&dbid=45

Comments 40

      1. I eat walnuts, macadamias, and Brazil nuts; all high heat cooking is done in either bacon grease or coconut oil. Lipid profile is looking good! 😉

  1. Great work putting this together! Wanted to add that magnesium may actually overlap some functions with calcium, and those individuals with sufficient magnesium intakes can actually require less calcium in their diets than those who are magnesium deficient. Magnesium is one of the nutrients with the lowest intake in the US. It is highest in dark leafy greens and nuts that are infrequently consumed in a Standard American Diet.

    1. Yep- this is a topic I discuss often with clients and at my seminars, especially since many of the items high in calcium are also high in magnesium. Awesome how nature creates that balance, right?

      1. I’ve been tracking my nutrients and I am getting around 50% of the DRI. Should I be adding a calcium rich serving into my diet or will I be fine where I am?

  2. Great work, Diane. I see that the >4:1 n6 to n3 ratio in the paleo day is mostly due to the ~20:1 eggs (not the 4:1 walnuts). Didn’t realize eggs were so skewed. I’ve heard that the omega eggs are not from happy chickens because they are forced to eat unnatural amounts of flax. What’s an ovophilic caveman to do?

  3. Right on!

    Loren Cordain published an article a few years ago showing that you can absolutely get all the nutrients you need across the board from a diet free of grains, legumes, and dairy. It was a little low in calcium, but he explains that the amount of veggies & fruits that would be consumed would provide enough alkalinity to offset the acidity of the animal protein, and ultimately people following a paleo diet will *retain* a lot more of the calcium they ingest. And of course, like you said, the phytic acid load of a typical Western diet (grain heavy) means that people aren’t *absorbing* anywhere near as much calcium as they think.

    Cordain compared a paleo diet with a more typical “American” diet, and while the paleo diet “only” had 69% of the RDA for calcium, better to have 69% that’s bioavailable and well absorbed than say, 200% all tied up in phytates or lost because of the overall heavy acid load of the diet. (If you give credence to the acid/alkaline issue, which seems to be under debate lately.)


  4. Wait. Did I read that right? Is there really 975mg of calcium in 1 tbsp of sesame seeds? I have been a little suspicious that I might be low in magnesium and calcium. Would there be any reason that I wouldn’t want to take a tbsp of sesame seeds everyday for a while?

    Man, I wish Mrs. May’s Sesame Crunch didn’t have cane juice and rice malt in it. I used to LOVE that stuff.

      1. Wow, thanks! That was totally a user-error and was supposed to be 3 eggs. I’ll fix that. And shoot– that day is pretty low in calories now. Yikes- thanks so much for catching that.

  5. One of the best ways to get calcium on a Paleo diet is to make an old fashioned bone broth, preferably from the meaty bones of grassfed animals. The trick is to simmer the bones for at least 12 hours,so the minerals will leach into the broth. You will wind up with a delicious broth that is full of calcium, magnesium,and many other minerals, along with natural gelatin, bone marrow, and other nutrients. And in a form that is very easily digested and absorbed.

    No grains or dairy needed.

  6. I worried about calcium, read your article and stopped worrying. But it’s been in the back of my mind since. I honestly don’t think I was actually intaking that much more calcium before starting to eat paleo. Having been allergic to cows milk all through my childhood, although mostly ok these days with dairy, milk has never really figured big in my diet. If anything I might be consuming MORE calcium now because I’m more conscious than before. So I would suggest that it IS a useful exercise to pick a day’s pre-paleo & paleo food and compare.

  7. Great post! It is a helpful reminder – I get this question a lot! We don’t eat “Paleo” on purpose – but I think the way we eat is really similar, so I always like learning more about the Paleo diet. Thanks for the great blog 😀

  8. I’m pregnant with #3 while on paleo and trying to feed a 3 yr old and 1 yr old (and hubs) on the same diet. While I’m OK with not having a high consumption of dairy normally, I know for a fact that without extra calcium in my diet, this baby will begin leaching it out of my bones and teeth. Losing a tooth or so per baby was pretty common for our society even 100 years ago! I have yet to take my children off of dairy either. There is no way I can get my 3 year old to eat sardines and spinach. I’ve tried. Any other tips for helping the kids and myself keep enough calcium for growing bones?

    1. I recommend raw dairy if you want to consume milk as pasteurized dairy is a dead food. Period. I would not drink it with any regularity with the hopes of improving health in any way.

      You can read more about milk on http://www.realmilk.com

      For more on the calcium issue- please refer to the episode of The Paleo Solution Podcast with Loren Cordain- transcript here: http://robbwolf.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Episode-112.pdf

      The episode can be downloaded for a free listen via iTunes or here: http://robbwolf.com/2011/12/27/the-paleo-solution-episode-112/

    2. I’m a bit confused. Looking at your chart for a days worth of meals on a Paleo Diet, it shows that calcium is only met at 56% compared to what you say is 90%. Which is correct?

      1. Read the article and understand what the RDA % means… namely this: in the presence of foods that INHIBIT calcium absorption, you must consume more of it per day to reach the RDA, whereas if you eat foods rich in both calcium and magnesium and avoid phytates that inhibit both minerals’ absorption, you should be good to go. There’s no reason, either, to view the RDA as the end-all-be-all of a nutritional status gold standard. I recommend that people eat a whole foods diet rich in a variety of plans and animals and avoid foods that disturb normal blood sugar levels and digestive process (grains, legumes, pasteurized dairy and sugar).

  9. I take Greenberry shakeology daily(might switch flavor) I want to go grain AND nut free. I also want to consume 4-5tablespoons coconut oil dailu(olive oil a small drizzle usually) I am unable to eat much fruit since I developed serious digestive issues. I could problem have some berries or a kiwi once a day. There’s fruit sugar in the shakeology(I seem fine with this product) I also take 1teaspoon Celtic grey sea salt daily. Also I make bone broth which recipe is 1/2 cup lemon or vinegar every 4 cups water in crockpot it taste really strong. Ill keep using it. I want to drink 4cups daily.

    I want to not follow specific exercise plan. I want to do work out as much as I want or as little. There may be a small amount of non gluten grain in shakeology.

    I cook all fruit and veggies and blend gem very well also.

    Other than knowing what I want i don’t know how to go about doing all this in one day. Fruit I’m ok with seems to be blueberries,raspberries,probly kiwi,lemon,lime and strawberry.

    Please advise

  10. We loves sardines in our family. I’m lucky my 8 month and 4 year old love them.
    You need to get them still containing the bones though for maximum mineral content.

    We do eat some raw goat dairy. It works for us.

  11. Hi! I just read this post again. . . I’m not concerned with my children getting adequate vitamins and minerals, but I am concerned that at least one of my children needs to take in a lot of calories each day (I calculated roughly 2600, which is way more than I eat!). I am stumbling with how to do this. This child has sensory issues (and is 10 years old weighing barely 55lbs). He won’t touch butter or many other high nutrient foods. He will only eat peanut butter that is sugar and refined oil filled (which we don’t have in the house, so he has stopped eating spoonfuls of peanut butter with his fruit for afternoon snacks). Won’t touch almond or other nut butters unless it’s baked into a grain free treat or bread. I’ve tried smoothies galore, and can get him to drink only limited ones. Usually he complains about the seeds in the berries, the spinach (even if you can’t taste it), etc. . . I can get him to drink one variety of Odwalla smoothie (Strawberry C)without resistance (but I want to reduce his sugar intake!). One of the only ideas I have (other than grain free waffles, breads frequently) is to make him a raw cream “ice cream” every day. I worry that this isn’t sustainable because we have 5 kids and they all want what he gets. Problem is a couple of the almost teen girls have mommies metabolism that doesn’t do well with grains or sugar carbs.

    Do you have suggestions? He will eat meat, but the portion he consumes is much smaller than what he needs to be eating. I do feed him eggs cooked in butter every morning. Our goal was 4 eggs, but I’ve only had luck getting 1-2 in him. He will eat fruit like it’s going to disappear and will eat carrots without drama. When I make salmon, he only eats a small bit.

    He will eat dried fruit and fruit leathers. . . I wonder if there’s a way to add coconut oil and/or ground sesame? I tried a wonderful ground nut granola bar over the summer that everyone loved except this kid! He had a crisis because “there’s nuts in here” even though the nuts were pulverized!

    I want to raise a healthy kid without food being a battle!

  12. From my understanding you need the fat in dairy to help absorb the calcium. Although they are high in calcium, does the body absorb the calcium effectively?

  13. Pingback: » Frequently asked questions about the Paleo diet.

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