Ocean Robbins at foodrevolution.org/blog/calcium-rich-foods
We hear that calcium is essential to strong bones, and that the best source of calcium is dairy products. But is that the whole story? How should you get the calcium you need?
As a teenager, I remember TV commercials featuring celebrities and athletes proudly wearing milk mustaches, gazing into the camera, and asking, “Got Milk?” That campaign ran from 1993 to 2014 and made a strong and lasting impression on consumers. But is the message valid?
Calcium Myths and Controversies
Myth: Dairy Products Are the Best Sources of Calcium. While dairy is high in calcium, high dairy consumption doesn’t correlate with better bone health. Osteoporosis and bone fractures are most common in the United States, Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—where people consume the most dairy products. Also, eating a lot of dairy products can increase your risk for certain cancers (prostate, breast, lung, and ovarian), which may be due to hormones and other factors naturally present in milk.
Myth: Getting Enough Calcium Is the Most Important Thing You Can Do for Bone Health. Calcium is important for bone health, but it isn’t the only thing your bones need to be strong. Vitamin D is also essential. People in countries like India, Peru, and Japan, eat around one-third the amount of calcium that Americans do, yet in these countries, bone fractures are rare. They have much higher exposure to sunlight due to geographic location, which naturally increases their vitamin D levels. You can get the vitamin D you need with about 15 minutes per day in the sun, or by taking a vitamin D-containing supplement (5,000 IU of D3 is favored by many). Activity has been proven to help prevent fracture. Exercises for bone health include weight-bearing activities, such as walking, running, tennis, dancing, stair-climbing, and weight-lifting.
Myth: Everyone Should Take a Calcium-Containing Supplement, Just to be Safe.
Research suggests that for many people, calcium supplements may do more harm than good, and risks of calcium supplementation are especially significant for people with a history of kidney stones. This isn’t new. A large epidemiological study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997 among almost 92,000 women, aged 34 to 59, found that women with higher dietary calcium intakes had reduced risk for kidney stones, while those who took calcium supplements increased their risk for kidney stones by 20%. The 2011 Women’s Health Initiative randomized clinical trial among 36,282 postmenopausal women found that those on calcium and vitamin D daily for seven years had a 17% increase in kidney stone incidence. This is thought to be because high doses of supplemental calcium make your body excrete more calcium in your urine, promoting kidney stone formation.
Calcium Supplements May Increase the Risk for Cardiovascular Disease. A study published in in 2008 followed 1,471 healthy postmenopausal women in New Zealand over five years. They found that those who took calcium supplements experienced more heart attacks, strokes, and other unwelcome cardiac events. Calcium supplements may increase blood calcium, which can cause stiff arteries and increase blood pressure, and both contribute to the development of heart disease.
Calcium supplements can also prevent certain medications from working. They can reduce the absorption of certain antibiotics, anticonvulsants, and even, ironically enough, medications used to treat osteoporosis.
So where should you get your calcium? We should look where cows get their calcium from: Plants.
Plant-Based, Calcium Rich Foods
Seeds and Nuts
½ cup sesame seeds = 350 mg calcium
1 ounce chia seeds = 180 mg calcium
Sprinkle sesame seeds on a salad or roasted veggies. Chia seeds are great in smoothies and oatmeal. Tahini (sesame seed butter) offers 130 mg of calcium in just 2 tablespoons.
½ cup navy beans or baked beans = 60 mg calcium
½ cup kidney beans = 75 mg calcium
½ cup black beans = 160 mg calcium
Beans are incredibly versatile. And they’re affordable, too. Add beans to soups, salads, burritos, pasta, casseroles, tacos, and pizzas.
1 cup lentils = 80 mg calcium
Lentils are inexpensive and shelf stable. Try red lentils in soups like dahl, green lentils in salads, or brown lentils to make a lentil loaf.
½ cup raw almonds = 80 mg calcium
2 Tbsp almond butter = 80 mg calcium
Almond butter is a great alternative to peanut butter, and it’s easy to make with a high-speed blender or food processor. Raw almonds are easy to add to smoothies, muffins, and pancakes, or just eaten alone.
Low Oxalate, Leafy Greens
½ cup of collard greens = 300 mg calcium
1 cup bok choy = 60 mg calcium
1 cup chopped kale = 80 mg calcium
Oxalates are compounds found in certain leafy greens that can block calcium absorption. Oxalates can make otherwise highly nutritious vegetables (e.g., spinach, swiss chard, and beet greens) not-so-great sources of calcium.
1 medium navel orange = 80 mg calcium
Oranges receive praise for their vitamin C content, but they’re also high in calcium.
Broccoli Raab (Rapini)
1 bunch cooked broccoli raab = 515 mg calcium
Broccoli is a decent source of calcium (40 mg per cup), but broccoli raab (also known as rapini) is even better. It can be boiled, sauteed, or seasoned and roasted.
4 dried figs = 55 mg calcium
If you’re not a fan of eating dried figs plain, they’re great additions to baked goods, like muffins, breads, and scones. Some people even add them to smoothies.
Do Any Factors Affect Calcium Absorption?
Salt can increase calcium loss, so avoid Eating too much sodium. Avoid high sodium processed and packaged foods; rinse canned beans and vegetables. Many experts suggest keeping sodium intake to 1,000 to 2,000 mg per day.
Smoking and tobacco use. Such habits can promote calcium loss, reduce bone density, and increase the risk of fractures. So will inadequate physical activity, poor diet, or alcohol use.
Eating animal-derived protein. Eating a lot of animal protein can remove calcium from the bones and increase its excretion. This doesn’t seem to happen when you eat plant proteins, such as beans, lentils, or grains.
Eating mainly animal-derived calcium. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that calcium from leafy greens was absorbed at significantly higher rates than dairy. Calcium in Brussels sprouts was absorbed at 64%, and calcium in kale was absorbed at 50%, while calcium in cow’s milk was absorbed at a rate of only 32%.
Not eating enough of other nutrients. For your body to absorb and use calcium properly, you need other nutrients, including vitamins D, C, K, E, magnesium, and boron. They all work TOGETHER.
Ocean Robbins is the author of 31-Day Food Revolution: Heal Your Body, Feel Great, and Transform Your World (Grand Central Life & Style, February 5, 2019). He is the CEO and co-founder of the 500,000+ member Food Revolution Network. He’s served as the adjunct professor for Chapman University. And he’s received numerous awards, including the national Jefferson Award for Outstanding Public Service and the Freedom’s Flame Award. He is the grandson of the co-founder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain,