You hear it from us as well as everyone else: Make sure to get enough calcium. But how much is enough and what’s the best way to get it? We’re here to help, with information and ideas to get the calcium you need in your diet.
The heart of your bones
There’s more calcium in our bodies than any other mineral. Almost all of it (99 percent) resides in our bones and teeth. The rest helps with chemical processes of metabolism. Too little calcium can cause rickets (malformation) in growing bones and osteoporosis (brittleness) in older bones.
How much calcium do we need? Experts differ, but only slightly. Most say everyone aged 19 to 50 needs 1,000 mg per day, with those over 50 needing 1,200 to help counter bone loss from aging, and those between 9 and 18 needing 1,300 to finish up bone growth. Younger children need less. Other sources (such as the National Osteoporosis Foundation) also suggest 1,300 for pregnant and lactating women.
Taking a supplement containing calcium is fine but avoid calcium from bone meal, dolomite, or unrefined oyster shells; they may contain lead or other toxic metals. To boost your level and guide your diet toward nutrition-rich choices, consider the following foods for your repertoire.
Your best bet
Milk is dense with calcium, but best of all the calcium is easily absorbed by the body, in part because of milk’s fortification with vitamin D. A cup of milk has 300 mg of calcium, a few milligrams less for whole milk and a few more for low-fat or skim.
Yogurt and buttermilk are comparable to milk, with nonfat plain yogurt being somewhat richer in calcium. By some reports goat’s milk has higher calcium concentrations, but may not be fortified with vitamin D.
As you might guess, cheese—as a product made with milk—has a high concentration of calcium. But not all cheeses are created equal. Hard cheeses, such as Swiss, Gouda, or Provolone, tend to be higher in calcium than soft or semi-soft cheeses such as cottage, Camembert, or ricotta. Hard cheeses have about 200 to 270 mg of calcium per ounce.
Recipe to try: Italian pasta melt
(Don’t despair if you don’t like or can’t digest dairy … just view the following slides!)
Omega-3 fatty acids too!
Canned sardines—and, to a lesser degree, salmon—are a great source of calcium, partly because their soft bones are included and meant to be eaten. Their bones become your bones. Three ounces of sardines contain about 350 mg of calcium; salmon has about 200-270 mg in three ounces, depending on the type of salmon.
Sardines are a great choice if you are pregnant, with the trifecta of calcium, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids in a fish that’s low on the food chain. Use either of these fish just as you would canned tuna (some people prefer removing the skin from salmon).
Recipe to try: Grilled sardines
And other leafy greens
Collard, mustard, and turnip greens, broccoli, and bok choy all have good doses of calcium. New research shows Kale’s calcium is especially well absorbed. Spinach, on the other hand, is a bit overrated in the greens family, because it contains a compound that makes its calcium harder to absorb. Green, leafy vegetables are also high in folate, so eat ’em up if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive.
Recipe to try: Creamy colcannon (Substitute kale or bok choy for cabbage.)
Look for the coagulant
That may not sound too appealing, but the gelling agent in tofu is what gives it its real calcium value. Firm tofu is your better calcium choice, as it is usually made with calcium sulfate, a naturally occurring mineral. This type can have up to 300 mg of calcium in a half cup; tofu made with other coagulating agents would have considerably less, though the soy base of tofu itself does provide some calcium.
Recipe to try: Tofu tacos (This uses calcium-rich cheese too!)
A sweet that’s good for you
Molasses is the byproduct of sugar refinement, and concentrates the nutrition cooked out of sugar’s vegetable origins. Just 1 tablespoon contains 172 mg of calcium.
Add molasses to baked beans for a traditionally robust flavor. Baste chicken or turkey with molasses for a rich color and taste. Add a spoonful to milk for a variation on chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry milk. And of course, it is a must in molasses cookies and gingerbread!
Recipe to try: Grandma’s gingerbread
Tahini packs a punch
You may get most of your sesame seeds sprinkled on bagels or a Japanese dish, but it’s time to integrate these little beauties into more of your meals. Two tablespoons of sesame paste (tahini) has 130 mg of calcium (this is better than sesame seeds whole, which have 50 mg in 1/4 cup). Most prepared hummus has tahini in it.
Recipe to try: Savory sandwich spread
Nuts for calcium!
Almonds go well in sweet and savory settings, and contain about 70 mg of calcium per ounce. You can also use almond butter, which has about 43 mg in a tablespoon. Almonds are loaded with other nutrients too, such as protein, iron, vitamin E, magnesium, and potassium. And they’re high in mono-unsaturated fat, which helps lower cholesterol.
Brazil and pistachio nuts also have calcium, but only about half as much as almonds.
Recipe to try: Fereni pudding (This Middle Eastern dessert also contains calcium from milk!)
Quick Calcium Fixes
Variety improves your diet
These foods are not the stars in calcium delivery, but are solid back-up players. Include them in your diet for variety and a calcium edge.
Corn tortilla: 50 mg/six-inch tortilla
Recipe: Chicken taco casserole
Oatmeal: 99-110 mg/cup
Recipe: Oatmeal breakfast bars (Use almonds instead of walnuts for more calcium.)
Edamame: 130 mg/half cup of beans.
Recipe: Roast them! (Using soy beans still in the pod, defrost in fridge if frozen, spread on a baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and roast 20 minutes at 425. Squeeze beans out of the pod right into your mouth.)
Also check out: ocean perch, dried figs, navy beans, and kelp.
Some foods are great sources of calcium because we make them so. Certain products take well to the addition of calcium and vitamin D. They’re also foods that aren’t difficult to find or prepare. Prime examples are:
Orange juice: 300 mg/cup. (Shake well, as calcium can settle out at the bottom and leave you with a last yucky gulp at the end.)
Soy beverage: Most have about 300 mg/cup. Check the label.
Breakfast cereals: The average is 300 mg/cup. Again this varies with brand and type of cereal, so read the label.
Vitamin D and Calcium Absorption
Soak it in
The recommendation for daily calcium intake was made assuming that only 30 percent of the calcium ingested will actually be absorbed by the body. Absorption varies with different foods, but vitamin D is essential to the process.
Where do we get vitamin D? The sun! Three exposures of 15 minutes per week should do it. But, if your skin can’t tolerate sun or is very dark, or if you live farther north than San Francisco or Philadelphia, you may need to get vitamin D another way. Fish oil is one source, or, more palatable to most: a supplement containing vitamin D.
A skeletal outline
Bone cells grow and decay throughout your life. As you age (especially when sex hormone production drops off), the speed of decay outpaces the speed of growth. Building healthy bones as a young person will help preserve them in the old person you become. So here are some tips.
- Eat a calcium-rich diet, as outlined in the previous slides.
- Do weight-bearing exercise (walk, ski, lift, play court sports, dance, etc.).
- Moderate caffeine: Research is mixed on this one, but keep it under six caffeinated drinks a day.
- Don’t smoke: Smoking is associated with greater bone loss and incidence of fracture.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Underweight people have trouble depositing calcium into bones, and are at greater risk for amenorrhea.
- See a doctor if your period stops for more than three months: It could mean compromised estrogen (and calcium absorption).