Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body. Not only is it responsible for building bone, it’s key to a number of important metabolic functions including blood clotting, muscle contraction and heartbeat regulation, nerve transmission, and hormone secretion. Studies have even found links between calcium and colorectal cancer prevention, weight management, and improved blood pressure and heart health. Calcium is an essential nutrient, meaning that the body can’t produce it on its own. Therefore, we must get it through the food we eat—along with the right vitamins and minerals for proper absorption. These include magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin K, which is why it’s so important to get the majority of your calcium through diet rather than supplements; many calcium-rich foods also contain these important calcium “boosters.” You can also ensure optimal calcium absorption by avoiding foods that cause inflammation, impact gut health, or otherwise interfere with nutrient absorption. These include processed foods and foods with added sugar and/or refined vegetable oils. The body stores 99 percent of its calcium in our bones and teeth, with the remaining one percent in our blood and tissues. Blood calcium is critical to many biochemical functions and is very tightly regulated by the body. When your body needs more blood calcium it will borrow from your bones. This natural process can become problematic, however, when we don’t replenish calcium through food or supplements. Continuous “overdrawing” can lead to bone loss, tooth decay, osteopenia, and osteoporosis. Calcium “Superfoods” for Every Palate Although milk and dairy products like cheese and yogurt are good sources of calcium, they’re not your only options. Nor may they be your best. There remains debate on how beneficial dairy is for bone health, with conflicting results from different studies. The bottom line? If you tolerate dairy, don’t solely rely on it for your calcium needs. Instead, focus on including a variety of calcium-rich veggies and other non-dairy sources in your diet. Dark, leafy greens and fish with edible soft bones, like sardines, anchovies, and canned salmon, are all excellent non-dairy sources, along with nuts and beans. Calcium powerhouse foods include:
· Yogurt or kefir: 1 cup = 488 mg · Canned sardines: 3.75 oz. = 351 mg · Cheese: 1 oz. = 202 mgs · Whey protein: 1 oz. = 200 mg · Blackstrap molasses: 1 tbsp = 200 mg · Canned sockeye salmon: 3 oz. = 168 mg · White beans, cooked: 1 cup = 161 mg · Okra, cooked: 1 cup = 123 mg · Almonds: 1/3 cup = 122 mgs · Dried figs: ½ cup = 121 mg · Raw kale: 2 cups = 107 mgs · Broccoli rabe: 1 cup = 100 mgs · Sesame seeds: 1 tbsp = 88 mg · Bok choy: 1 cup = 74 mgs · Raw arugula: 2 cups = 64 mg · Broccoli: 1 cup = 62 mg
- Other excellent non-dairy calcium sources include black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, organic edamame and tofu, rockfish, clams, seaweed, and sunflower seeds.
- Other calcium-rich veggies include Chinese cabbage, collard greens, Swiss Chard, green beans, carrots, turnip, rhubarb, okra, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and watercress.
How Much Calcium Do You Need?
The amount of calcium you need depends on your age—with upticks during your teens and later years. Both men and women ages 19 to 50 need 1,000 mg a day, with a bump to 1,200 mg for women at 51 and for men at 71. Children and teens, whose bones will reach peak density by their early twenties, need 1,300 mg for optimal bone health. Women who are pregnant or nursing, or anyone dealing with a health issue that depletes calcium, such kidney disease or blood disorders, will benefit from extra calcium in their diet or via high-quality, highly-absorbable supplements.
Supplements and Absorption
While you should aim to get your calcium primarily through food, you may need to supplement because of age, a medical condition, or a vegan diet. Aim to only take 500 milligrams at one time, as your body can’t absorb more than that in a sitting. If you need a larger dose, split it up throughout the day, and always take calcium with food. To ensure that you actually absorb the calcium you take, a simple blood test will determine whether or not you are deficient in vitamin D or magnesium (a calcium deficiency usually signals deficiencies in these areas as well). Fatty fish, including tuna, mackerel, and salmon are high in vitamin D. Magnesium-rich foods include leafy greens, cocoa, avocado, and bananas, or you can take a high-quality supplement.
Not sure if you’re getting enough calcium? Not crazy about fruits and vegetables? Curious about calcium supplements? Concerned that your dairy-free diet may be reducing your calcium intake? Contact me. I’m here to help!