Calcium. Thanks to junior high health classes, years of advertising by the dairy council, and maybe even that Schoolhouse Rock video with the dancing skeletons in boater hats, you probably know how important calcium is, especially for women.
What you might not know is why calcium is so important, or that you don’t have to eat a lot of dairy (or even any) to get it.
Read on to learn the benefits of calcium, why getting calcium from your diet beats relying on supplements, and other info on this important mineral and its critical role in your body.
The Benefits of Calcium
Though its primary role is the familiar one of building strong bones and teeth, calcium is essential to the proper function of your muscles, nerves, and heart as well. Without enough calcium, children may not reach their full height, and adults may be at risk for osteoporosis—a disease characterized by porous, brittle bones.
Calcium may even play a role in preventing cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Though the jury’s still out on those benefits, getting the right amount of calcium certainly can’t hurt.
Diet Versus Supplements
Before we go on to talk about calcium supplements and dietary sources, we should mention that there may be some risk associated with taking too much calcium. This almost never happens when diet is your main or only calcium source, which is one reason to try getting your calcium primarily from your diet. The other reason to avoid calcium supplements is that they can come with side effects (such as constipation and bloating) that you may want to avoid.
Calcium supplements are still recommended for those who may not get enough calcium through their diet, or those whose calcium needs are higher. You may need a calcium supplement if you:
- Follow a vegan diet
- Eat lots of protein or sodium, which can cause your body to excrete more calcium
- Have osteoporosis
- Get long-term treatment with corticosteroids
- Have a bowel or digestive disease, such as inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease, that decreases your ability to absorb calcium
- Are lactose intolerance and limit your consumption of milk and dairy
For most of us, and women especially, a modest dose of calcium in a one-a-day or multivitamin won’t put you over the top. But check with your doctor if you think you may be at risk of getting too much.
Calcium Beyond Dairy
For the many of us who are cutting out dairy, getting enough calcium is perhaps the chief concern. Fortunately, there are lots of other delicious, healthy ways you can get your calcium.
Seeds are ultra-compact nutrient dynamos. Some of them are high in calcium, including poppy, sesame, celery, and chia seeds. Seeds also deliver protein and healthy fats. Chia seeds, for example, are a great plant-based source of omega-3 fatty acids. Just a tablespoon of sesame seeds has 9 percent of your recommended daily calcium. It also contains copper, iron, and manganese.
Sardines or canned salmon
Sardines and canned salmon are loaded with calcium, thanks to their edible bones. A 3.75-ounce can of sardines provides 35 percent of your recommended daily calcium. Three ounces of canned salmon with bones has 21 percent. These oily fish offer top-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids—good for your heart, brain, and skin.
Beans and lentils
Beans and lentils are high in fiber, protein, and micronutrients, and contain plenty of iron, zinc, folate, magnesium, and potassium. Some kinds of beans have a fair amount of calcium. White beans are a good source, with a cup of cooked white beans providing 13 percent of your recommended daily calcium. Most other varieties of beans and lentils have less than half of that, but can still be a significant part of your calcium intake.
Of all the nuts, almonds are the highest in calcium. An ounce of almonds, or about 22 nuts, delivers 8 percent of your daily calcium. Almonds also provide 3 grams of fiber per ounce, as well as healthy fats and protein. They’re a great source of magnesium, manganese, and vitamin E, and eating nuts may help lower blood pressure and body fat.
Dark, leafy greens
Greens like collards, kale, and spinach are incredibly healthy, and some of them are high in calcium. For instance, one cup of cooked collard greens has 266 mg of calcium, which for most is a quarter of the amount you need in a day. Note that some varieties of greens, like spinach, are also high in oxalates, which reduce the amount of the calcium your body takes in. Kale and collard greens are low-oxalate greens, so you get more of the good stuff.
Another high-oxalate plant, rhubarb, provides a lot of calcium—but only some of it is useable by your body. Still, a cup of cooked rhubarb has almost 9 percent of your daily calcium requirement. Rhubarb also has a lot of fiber and vitamin K to offer, and can help promote healthy gut bacteria.
A “pseudo-cereal” (like quinoa) amaranth is an excellent source of folate and is very high in certain minerals, like manganese, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and calcium. A cup of cooked amaranth grain delivers around 12 percent of your daily need.
Edamame and Tofu
Edamame are soybeans in the pod, and tofu is made from soybeans. One cup of edamame has 10 percent of your recommended daily calcium. It’s also a good source of protein and delivers all your daily folate in a single serving. Tofu that’s been prepared with calcium has exceptionally high amounts of calcium. You can get 86 percent of your daily calcium in just half a cup.
Dried figs have lots of antioxidants and fiber, and more calcium than most dried fruits—5 percent of your daily calcium in just one ounce. They also provide decent amounts of potassium and vitamin K.
Don’t Forget the D
No matter how you get your calcium, remember that your body isn’t able to absorb any of it without vitamin D. The biggest natural source of vitamin D is sunlight absorbed by your skin, so you might want to consider enjoying some of your calcium sources picnic-style. But you can also get some vitamin D from things like fish with bones and from egg yolks, as well as foods that are fortified with vitamin D.
Keep these “hard facts” about calcium close at hand, and your body will be thanking you for decades.