Does Your Gluten-Free Dairy-Free Diet Have Enough Calcium?
Many parents of autistic children believe that gluten-free casein-free (GFCF) diets work well to reverse inappropriate behaviors and improve sensory processing. In fact, Dr. Alessio Fasana, University of Maryland’s Medical Director at the Center for Celiac Research, estimates that gluten sensitivity and celiac disease may affect as many as 20 percent of all autistic children.
Medical professionals and researchers believe casein, a protein molecule found in milk, can cause similar issues as gluten, including inflammation, allergies, and autoimmune reactions. Current recommendations for those newly diagnosed with celiac disease is to avoid all dairy products for at least the first six months, and sometimes more. Autistic children and adults sensitive to casein have to stay dairy free for life.
While a dairy free or GFCF diet can calm autoimmune reactions and heal the gut of autism individuals, giving up dairy products can result in nutritional deficiencies, particularly calcium. If you’re currently dairy free, here are the best ways to make sure you’re getting enough calcium.
Problem with Dairy-Free Diets
While special autism diets and standard GFCF diets do work for those who have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and/or casein allergies, the diets themselves are not problem free. Dairy products form a large part of a typical American diet, and that includes low-carb diets and primal diets as well.
Most children are used to drinking milk daily or pouring it over their cereal. Many eat slices of American, Cheddar, or Swiss cheese on their sandwiches, hamburgers, or even plain. You may use milk or yogurt in your baking and cooking, dress up your vegetables with butter or cheese sauce, and stir sour cream or canned creamed soup into a favorite casserole or recipe for scalloped potatoes. The use of dairy products is so common, that most people never realize how much dairy they're using until they have to eliminate it from their diet.
One of the main issues raised against removing casein from the diet is calcium. If you can no longer drink milk and cannot eat store-bought breads, cheese, or butter, how are you going to get enough calcium? Although manufacturers don’t fortify coconut milk or organic grains, there are plenty of nutritious ways to get calcium into a GFCF diet. It just takes a little bit of detective work, some thought, and a willingness to experiment.
Why Are Calcium-Rich Foods Important?
Under normal conditions, calcium is a tightly regulated, well-stored mineral. Like blood glucose, the amount in your blood that’s available to body cells and tissues doesn’t fluctuate very much. The body stores it in your bones and teeth, and then withdraws it as needed to keep your intracellular fluids, muscles, and blood levels as constant as possible. Calcium is essential for:
- development of strong bones and teeth
- normal blood clotting
- nerve transmission
- muscle function
- enzyme activity
- hormonal secretions
However, according to the National Institutes of Health’s “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet,” these functions only use about 1 percent of the body’s total calcium. Most of the calcium remains stored in your bones and teeth where it contributes strength, and helps body functions. For a child, strong bones and teeth are extremely important, not only to support growth, but also to protect them from bone loss later in life. In addition, your body only absorbs about one-third of the calcium you eat, making calcium-rich foods the best choice.
Calcium Deficiency Symptoms
If you consume plenty of dairy products, calcium deficiency is rare. However, the inflammation and autoimmune issues from food sensitivities, allergies, or celiac disease can interfere with calcium absorption. This malabsorption often leaves your calcium level below normal. Although a GFCF diet can quiet the inflammation and possible autoimmune issues within only a few weeks, removing dairy products from your diet will not automatically correct calcium deficiencies.
It’s always best to have your nutritional deficiencies tested by a medical professional who can monitor your supplementation program and keep an eye on your recovery progress. However, the following signs and symptoms of calcium deficiency are a clue that you might not be getting enough:
- bone deformities
- soft flexible bones (rickets)
- stunted growth
- numbness, tingling, or stiffness in hands or feet
- muscle cramps or spasms
- bone pain (osteomalacia)
- brittle and porous bones
- chronic fatigue
- poor appetite
- abnormal heart rhythms
- failure of blood to clot
Besides building strong bones and teeth, calcium is also an important electrolyte. It’s involved in water balance, acid/alkaline balance, maintaining osmotic pressure, and heart muscle function.
Improve Calcium Absorption Through Sunshine and Exercise
The body always sacrifices lower-priority processes, such as building up bone density, for life-saving functions whenever a nutritional nutrient is in short supply or not available. However, upping your calcium intake isn’t the only way to ensure you’re getting enough calcium. According to the Harvard Health Newsletter, April 2003, "Calcium is billed as the bone-building nutrient. But some experts argue that we should pay more attention to exercise and Vitamin D."
Dr. Osborne happens to be one of those experts. In the following video, he carefully explains what causes calcium deficiency, and how exercise and sunshine are important for everyone, not just those on gluten-free dairy free diets.
Dr. Osborne Discusses Importance of Sunshine and Calcium
Exercise Ideas To Help You Absorb More Calcium
There are additional things you can do to encourage the body to assimilate more of the calcium it already has. According to the book, Dr. Jensen’s Guide to Body Chemistry & Nutrition, exercise is one of those ways. “We seem to need at least some minimum of exercise to ‘coax’ calcium into the body,” Jensen writes. “It has been demonstrated that calcium is assimilated better by people who exercise regularly.”
While a small autistic, dairy-allergic, or celiac child with inferior muscle development probably won’t enter into, or enjoy, a strict, formal exercise routine, the idea is to implement some type of weight-bearing activity. Look for something you or your children might be interested in lifting or carrying – preferably, something fun.
To encourage bone growth, the item should weigh just a little more than can be lifted comfortably. If turned into a game where the child receives encouragement and praise for building up their muscles, a 5-pound sack of potatoes or a small flower pot heaped with wet potting soil can also do the trick.
In addition, incorporate plenty of sunshine into the rules of the game. The amount of Vitamin D acquired through at least 20 minutes of sunshine aids calcium assimilation. You can also separate going outside to play, or use an outside game as a positive reinforcement for an in-house lifting exercise.
But lifting isn't the only type of activity that helps increase calcium absorption. Harvard University advises, "not just lifting weights, but walking, climbing stairs, even dancing." In fact, they say that a short, brisk walk is even better for you than a large calcium pill.
Non-dairy Sources of Calcium
While dairy products are rich sources of calcium, many foods can supply the body’s needs. Start by taking the time to become familiar with a reliable list of calcium foods, such as the one offered at the USDA’s website. Although it’s always best to make up your own listing of foods that you and your family like, some basic GFCF sources of calcium are:
- almonds and other nuts
- salmon, lean pork loin, and tofu
- spinach and other dark, leafy vegetables
- broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, peas, and squash
- carrots and celery
- mixed vegetables
- tomatoes, canned (including sauces)
- corn tortillas
- hominy soups and caseroles
- potatoes, all types including sweet potatoes
- beans and black-eyed peas
- peanut butter and other nut butters
- raisins and dried figs
- blackberries, raspberries, kiwi, and papaya
With your personal list in hand, analyze each food, considering how often and how much you and your family currently eats. While whole grains, gluten-free breads, organic milk substitutes, and some vegetables have very little calcium per serving, it’s also important to take into account the daily volume you’re getting.
Introduce New Foods with Calcium Slowly
While the difficulty in eating enough calcium depends on the type of food you’re used to, it also depends on how resistant you or your family are to change. Organic or sustainable agriculture (fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides) may be best, but if your calcium level is low, it may be better to initially use calcium-fortified orange juice, almond milk, calcium-fortified cold cereals, or white enriched rice while seeking out and slowly introducing new, healthier food choices your family will actually eat.