by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N
What are the Best Sources of Calcium?
We hear a lot about the importance of getting enough calcium. And you may have gotten the impression that getting the recommended amount of calcium from diet alone is next to impossible and that calcium supplements are essential. I don’t agree. As I’ll show you in a moment, it’s really not that difficult to get the required amount of calcium from foods. I also think you’re better off getting your calcium from real foods than from supplements because calcium-rich foods tend to provide other nutrients that enhance your body’s ability to absorb and use calcium.
Which Foods Are High In Calcium?
Canned Fish. Fish such as sardines and canned salmon are great sources of calcium because they contain tiny bones that are so soft you’d never notice them, but that are a potent source of calcium. As a bonus, these fish are also among the few natural food sources of vitamin D. Getting tons of calcium is not nearly as effective as simply getting the recommended amounts of calcium and Vitamin D.
Dairy Products. Dairy product such as milk and yogurt are not only high in calcium, the calcium they contain is extremely well-absorbed. Dairy products are also good sources of magnesium and phosphorus and most are fortified with vitamin D. All of these help your body make the best use of calcium. Each eight ounce serving of milk or yogurt contains about ¼ to 1/3 of your daily calcium needs.
Tofu. Vegans and the dairy adverse need not despair. Tofu can be an excellent source of calcium because it’s usually made with calcium sulfate as a natural setting agent. Tofu is also a good source of protein, which enhances calcium absorption. A half cup of firm tofu can provide half a day’s supply of calcium.
Cabbages. Vegetables in the cabbage family, including broccoli, kale, bok choy, cabbage, mustard, and turnip greens are all good sources of calcium that’s very bioavailable. Cabbages and leafy greens are also good sources of folate and vitamin K, nutrients that also help build strong bones. A half cup of Chinese cabbage or a cup of bok choy provides almost as much absorbable calcium as a glass of milk.
Fortified Foods. Fortified orange juice or soymilk is sort of a cross between getting calcium from a food source and taking a supplement—the calcium is not food-based but at least you’re taking it with a food, which can enhance your absorption.
Everything Else. Also, keep in mind that even foods that aren’t super high in calcium, such as grains, nuts, seeds, and other vegetables, still contribute to your overall intake. The typical American diet—which, as you know, doesn’t come any where close to the recommended amount of vegetables—still manages to provide an average of 250 milligrams of calcium a day, not counting dairy products.
Why Spinach is Not a Great Calcium Source
Although spinach has a lot of good stuff going for it, it’s not a great source of calcium.
Not all food-based calcium is well-absorbed. Spinach, for example, contains quite a bit of calcium but it also contains a lot of oxalates. These natural compounds bind with calcium and make it very difficult for your body to get at it. Although spinach has a lot of good stuff going for it, it’s not a great source of calcium. In fact, because the oxalates in spinach can bind to the calcium in other foods as well, it can even keep you from getting as much calcium from the foods that you eat with it. Unless you never eat calcium-rich foods except with spinach, this is not a big deal—just something to keep in mind.
Who Should Worry About Calcium?
Getting enough calcium is important for everyone, but it’s especially critical for those in their teens and twenties, because these are the years when you are accumulating bone density to get you through the rest of your hopefully long and active life. Ironically, this is the one group that’s most likely to be coming up short in the calcium department.
How Do You Know if You’re Getting Enough Calcium?
Adults need about 1000 mg of calcium every day. Adolescents, women over 50, and men over 70 need about 1300 mg. To get a rough estimate of how much calcium you’re getting, start with 250 milligrams as your baseline. Add 250 mg for each serving of dairy, canned fish, tofu, Chinese cabbage, or fortified orange juice. Give yourself another 100 for any other cabbage family vegetables. It’s not important that you get exactly 1000 mg of calcium every day—if it’s averaging out to your recommended intake, you’re probably getting all the calcium you need.
Should You Take a Supplement?
As I’ve said, I think that getting most if not all of your calcium from foods is ideal—and completely doable. That said, if your diet is falling short, you might want to take a supplement. But you only want to take as much as you need to fill the gap between your dietary intake and your recommended intake.
If you’re averaging 750 mg of calcium every day, there’s no need to take 1,000 or 2,000 mg of supplemental calcium. A 250 mg supplement would do the trick. As I explained in this article, there’s really no benefit to getting more than the recommended amount of calcium. Even if you’re afraid that you might not have gotten enough calcium when you were younger, taking extra calcium now unfortunately won’t make up for your misspent youth. In some cases, it could actually cause problems.
If after all of that, you do decide to take a calcium supplement, I’ve included three bonus tips about calcium supplements in my newsletter this week. Not a subscriber? Sign up for my free weekly newsletter here.