Building strong bones and more
Calcium builds and maintains your bone strength, helps muscles — including your heart muscle — contract properly and plays an essential role in normal blood clotting. Eating calcium-rich foods every day replenishes your body’s supply of this key mineral.
However, many Americans don’t consume enough calcium. In fact, calcium is deemed an “underconsumed nutrient of public health concern” in the 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommend that individuals shift their nutritional intake to include more calcium-rich foods.
The recommended daily allowance of calcium is about 1,000 to 1,300 milligrams per day for most people, with variations based on age and gender. “Many people fall short of that goal,” says Carrie Dennett, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist. “Most Americans only get about 75% of the recommended daily calcium intake.”
Milk is a well-known top source of dietary calcium. But if you don’t do dairy, don’t worry. There are many other excellent sources of calcium as well.
Before advising anyone to drink milk, Cassie Vanderwall, a registered dietitian in the department of clinical nutrition at UW Health in Wisconsin, asks questions first. People may abstain from milk because they’re lactose-intolerant, for instance, or they may follow a plant-based lifestyle and avoid dairy products.
That said, she notes that highest-calcium foods are those that come from milk. Dairy products including milk, yogurt and cheeses provide about 250 to 300 milligrams of calcium per serving, roughly one-quarter of the daily recommended intake.
Cheese is a tasty source of calcium — but it doesn’t come without health caveats. Depending on the type and amount, cheese may be high in sodium, calories and saturated fats. However, eaten in moderation, cheese can be healthier than you might think. A 2017 review of 15 long-term studies found that cheese enthusiasts had a lower risk of heart disease and stroke than non-cheese eaters.
Different cheeses have varying calcium levels. “A half-cup of part skim ricotta has 335 milligrams, which is pretty darn good,” Dennett says.
A little yogurt can provide a lot of calcium. An 8-ounce serving of plain low-fat yogurt contains 415 milligrams. The same amount of low-fat fruit yogurt has 333 milligrams, and one-half cup of soft frozen yogurt contains about 100 milligrams. Health bonus: Yogurt is also a good source of probiotics, bacteria that promotes healthy digestion and helps relieve constipation.
Greek yogurt, although a good source of protein, is actually lower in calcium than “regular” yogurt, Dennett notes. For that reason, if you need more calcium in your diet, you might want to think about eating regular yogurt, she suggests.
A centuries-old food staple in Asia, tofu is now a mainstay for many people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Tofu, a soybean product made from milk curds, is known to be packed with protein, but it’s also a great source of calcium, says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and author of the Plant-Powered Dietitian blog.
Although tofu is bland in itself, you can make it tasty by incorporating it into multiples recipes ranging from scrambled eggs to stir-fries. (Check the package label to make certain that tofu brand is prepared with calcium.) One-quarter block of hard tofu (prepared with nigari, a salt solution often used to solidify tofu) contains 421 milligrams of calcium, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s FoodData Central.
Dark, leafy greens
Leafy green vegetables provide a significant amount of plant-based calcium. “You could have one-half cup of either bok choy, turnip greens or mustard greens, or even a cup of broccoli,” Vanderwall says. “Those are quite high in calcium — maybe unassumingly so.”
Collard greens are a great source, Dennett says, with a single serving providing about one-quarter of daily calcium requirements. On the other hand, raw spinach may fall short. “I caution people not to turn to spinach for calcium needs, because it’s higher in oxalates, which is a compound that can actually bind to other minerals,” she says. That means calcium from raw spinach is less easily absorbed or available for use by the body. However, with cooked spinach, the oxalic acid is broken down by heating, so that a person is able to get more calcium from the dark, leafy green.
Nuts provide another plant-based source of calcium. Almonds top the list, with about 76 milligrams of calcium per ounce of whole or dry-roasted almonds. “An ounce of almonds, which is a reasonable portion, has about 8% of our daily needs — which is nothing to sneeze at,” Dennett says.
Brazil nuts contain about 45 mg per ounce. Dry roasted hazelnuts have about 35 mg and whole hazelnuts about 33 mg per ounce. Pistachios, walnuts, chestnuts and macadamia nuts each have more than 20 mg of calcium .
Many seeds contain calcium. Sesame, poppy and trendy chia seeds are among the best seed sources, Dennett says. Like nuts, she says, seeds are super-healthy, but seeds haven’t been as well-studied and may fall a bit under the radar.
Tahini paste, which is made of ground sesame seeds, is a key ingredient in hummus, a Mediterranean diet snack favorite. A tablespoon of tahini contains 64 milligrams of calcium.
Used in moderation, molasses, a byproduct of sugar manufacturing, is considered a healthy sweetener. Thick, slow molasses syrup is also a good source of calcium.
Molasses varieties are related to how many time it’s been boiled down. Blackstrap molasses, the product of the third boiling, has the least sugar. Because this thickest, darkest version is the most concentrated, blackstrap molasses contains the most nutrients, including calcium. A tablespoon contains about 200 milligrams of calcium. You can use blackstrap molasses in baking or as a glaze.
Canned sardines and salmon
Convenient and inexpensive, canned fish contains a healthy amount of calcium. Bones are the critical ingredient, Dennett notes, so check the label to make sure canned fish is not the boneless variety. Because bones are softened in the canning process, you don’t have to worry about choking on them, she adds. Sardines have the most calcium with 325 milligrams in a 3-ounce serving. Salmon provides about 180 milligrams in the same amount of fish.
Figs are a good fruit-based source of calcium. Two dried figs contain about 65 milligrams of calcium. You can eat them alone or as part of a dried fruit and nut mix. That way, you combine two calcium sources in one healthy snack.
By finding different ways to incorporate calcium in your daily diet, you can likely consume enough through food alone. “If you are getting adequate calcium intake with a couple of calcium-rich sources during the day, you don’t really need to take supplements,” Palmer says. “You should discuss supplementation with your health care professional before starting a regimen.”
Edamame might seem like a surprise source of calcium, Palmer says. However, these crunchy, cooked soybean pods provide nearly 100 milligrams of calcium per cup. If you’re eating edamame, for instance as an appetizer with sushi, you’ll want to be aware of how much sodium it contains, so you don’t get too much salt with your healthy calcium helping.
Calcium-fortified foods and beverages can help boost your dietary calcium as needed. For instance, a 1-cup serving of fortified orange juice contains about 300 milligrams of calcium. If you prefer plant-based foods to dairy products, many almond, rice and soy milks are also calcium-fortified. Packaged oatmeal, many cold breakfast cereals and frozen waffles may be fortified, too. Don’t forget to check the Nutrition Facts label. “The amount of calcium is going to be all over the map, so people would have to look,” Dennett points out.
More from U.S. News