Got Calcium?


I used to think the only way to get enough calcium was to have a couple glasses of milk and a cup of yogurt every day. I have the good marketing of the National Dairy Council to thank for that – “got milk?” I’ve realized throughout my schooling, though, that there are so many other ways to get enough calcium in throughout the day. Calcium is one of the most important minerals in our bodies (though, they are all important). In addition to dairy foods, calcium is abundant in many whole foods—including plants! To introduce you to calcium, I’m going to start out by answering some basic questions you may have about this important mineral—including some delicious calcium-rich recipes!

 

Why is calcium important and how does my body use it?

You may already know that the biggest role of calcium in our bodies is bone formation.  In fact, 99% of the calcium in our bodies is found in our teeth and bones. Our bones are living tissue and are always in a state of turnover; our bones constantly break down and rebuild themselves in order to stay strong. It is amazing to think that the calcium we eat everyday is incorporated into our sturdy skeleton (along with other minerals such as phosphorus, fluoride, magnesium, potassium, and sodium).

The 1% of the calcium in our bodies that’s not stored in our bones is still important! It hangs out in our blood and our cells to assist with important processes and chemical reactions in our bodies such as blood clotting, muscle contraction, nervous system function, and carrying messages in our cells so they function properly.  If we have diets low in calcium, our bodies will take calcium from our bones to keep our blood calcium at normal levels so these processes can continue to happen.

For all of these reasons, it’s really important to get enough calcium each day throughout our whole lives.

 

How much calcium do I need?

In general, we all need about 1,000 mg of calcium every day. Females over 51 and males over 71 need just a little bit more: these people need about 1,200 mg of calcium every day. As we age, our bones break down more easily and we don’t add new mass to our bones as well. This means that not getting enough calcium as we get older may result in non-reversible, long-term consequences such as osteoporosis, especially in women.

1,000 mg may sound like a lot, but once you know what foods are rich in calcium, you will start to realize that there are plenty of ways to get this much in every day.

 

What are the best sources of calcium?

While this myth that dairy is the only way to get enough calcium is being constantly drilled into our heads, we tend to forget about all the other amazing whole foods, such as plants, that that provide our bodies with significant amounts of calcium. While dairy is one of the best sources of calcium, we can’t forget about dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and fruits.

There are many more whole foods that contain calcium than what I have listed below, but I chose to highlight a few of the best sources (and about how much calcium is in a serving).

Dairy
1 cup of milk or yogurt // 200 – 400 mg, depending on the type
1 oz. of cheese // 100 – 200 mg (1 oz. is about the size of a pair of dice)
1/2 cup of cottage cheese // 100 mg

Seafood
3 oz. of salmon or sardines (with the bones!) // 400 mg
(3 oz. is about the size of a deck of cards)

Legumes
1/2 cup of tofu // 125 – 227 mg (depending on the type)
1 cup of cooked navy beans // 126 mg
1 cup of cooked edamame // 100 mg
1 cup of cooked pinto beans // 79 mg
1 cup of cooked kidney beans // 64 mg

Fruits
1/2 cup of dried figs // 100 mg
1 large orange // 74 mg

Dark leafy greens
1/2 cup of cooked rhubarb // 98 mg
1/2 cup of cooked turnip greens // 98 mg
1/2 cup of cooked collard greens // 89 mg
1/2 cup of cooked mustard greens // 52 mg
1/2 cup of cooked kale // 47 mg
1/2 cup of cooked broccoli // 31 mg

Nuts and Seeds
2 tablespoons of tahini (ground sesame seeds) // 120 mg
1 oz. of almonds // 75 mg
1 oz. of walnuts // 28 mg
1 oz. of pecans // 20 mg
1 oz. of peanuts // 15 mg
(1 oz. of nuts is about 1/4 cup)

Sometimes non-dairy milks, juices, and other products are supplemented with calcium, but be sure to check the food label for added sugar and artificial additives.  With calcium-fortified or enriched foods, be sure to shake or stir the contents before using them because the calcium settles at the bottom.

Also, be sure to check the ingredient labels on milks, yogurts, and cheeses (especially “lite” or “non-fat” versions); these often contain added sugars, thickeners, and stabilizers to make up for the missing fat.  But don’t be afraid to go for full fat versions every once in a while because these won’t harm you in moderation (learn more about the current research on fat here).

While I’ve been focusing on calcium, I don’t want you to forget that all of the foods I’ve listed have nutrients other than calcium that serve our bodies well. In other words, these foods have benefits other than just the fact that they have calcium in them. For example, green vegetables are also loaded with vitamin K, which is another component to healthy and strong bones.

 

How can I maximize the calcium I get from foods?

The best way to absorb as much calcium from your diet as possible is to spread out your intake of calcium-rich foods throughout the day. While there are some nutrients that can either enhance or inhibit the amount of calcium absorbed into your body through the digestive tract, none of these interactions are significant enough for the average person to be concerned about.

 

Should I be taking a calcium supplement?

Calcium supplements can be beneficial for those who need more (which may include vegans, vegetarians, athletes, and those with compromised gut function such as those with Celiac disease or inflammatory bowel diseases), those who don’t consume enough through food (1,000 mg daily), or older adults trying to prevent further bone loss. Keep in mind that calcium can cause some unpleasant digestive issues, such as constipation, so try to get enough through your diet if you can. Don’t forget that the most effective way to get your nutrients is through natural, whole foods (click here if you want to learn more about supplements vs. whole foods). Check with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian for individual assistance and recommendations..

If you are someone who needs to take a supplement, take it from a good quality company (one verified by USP). Be sure to take a supplement that also contains vitamin D and take it alongside magnesium and with food (these factors enhance calcium’s absorption). Also, avoid taking calcium alongside iron and zinc because both of these minerals will prevent some of the calcium from being absorbed into your body.

 

How can I find great recipes with lots of calcium?

I have listed some recipes that are packed full of nutrition with an extra punch of calcium. When trying to incorporate more calcium into your diet, remember to always be creative, include a variety of foods, and remember that Google is your friend when it comes to finding great recipes.

Cinnamon Tahini Protein Smoothie
Recipe by McKel at Nutrition Stripped


Asian Broccoli Salad with Peanut Sauce
Recipe by Ali at Gimme Some Oven


Butternut Squash and Kale
Recipe by Ree Drummond at The Pioneer Woman


Fig Newton Energy Balls
Recipe by Carmen at Every Last Bite


Masala Spiced Tofu Scramble
Recipe by John and Dana at Minimalist Baker


Spicy Skillet Turnip Greens
Recipe by Robyn Stone at Add A Pinch


Sardine Rillettes
Recipe by Elise Bauer


Lemony White Bean Dip with Herbs (use navy beans!)
Recipe by Gena Hamshaw at Choosing Raw


Creamy Thai Squash Soup (made with tofu!)
Recipe by Deanna Segrave at Teaspoon of Spice


Homemade Nut Milks
Recipes by Beth at Tasty Yummies
To save time, you can buy non-dairy milks from the grocery store (which are often supplemented with calcium).


Homemade Nut Butters
Recipes by Beth at Tasty Yummies
To save time, you can purchase nut butters from the grocery store. Be sure to purchase the “all natural” kind and check the label to avoid added sugars and fillers.


Stewed Rhubarb (serve over plain yogurt for a dish packed with calcium!)
Recipe by Carmen at Every Last Bite


Polenta Al Forno with Collard Greens, Cheddar & Ricotta
Recipe by Laura at Blogging Over Thyme

 

Still have questions about calcium? Feel free to ask in the comments section below! 🙂

 

References:

1.  Sareen Gropper and Jack Smith, Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (6th Edition), 2013.

2.  “Calcium 101,” Nutrition Stripped, October 3, 2014.

3.  “What Is Calcium?” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, January 28, 2014.

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