Calcium is a critical nutrient.
It’s fairly common knowledge that calcium is an important nutrient, and that you need to make sure you’re taking in enough. While it’s mostly known “to support tooth and bone health, calcium does so much more,” says Sydney Lappe, a St. Louis, Missouri-based in-house dietitian with bistroMD, a meal delivery company headquartered in Naples, Florida.
“In fact, calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and plays an active role in nerve signaling, blood clotting, muscle contracting and other body functions,” she adds. It also protects against osteoporosis, a condition characterized by brittle bones that tends to develop with age.
Katie Proctor, a registered dietitian who works with the a2 Milk Company, which produces a2 milk products (a type of cow’s milk that is easier to digest for people with lactose intolerance), says that “calcium is important because it can only be obtained through food or supplements as it’s not produced by the body. A well-rounded, balanced diet is important to ensure you are getting adequate nutrition including calcium.”
Calcium is not just in dairy.
Antonette Hardie, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center‘s Comprehensive Transplant Center in Columbus, says that while dairy foods are usually the first that come to mind when trying to boost calcium intake, “calcium-rich foods don’t always have to be from a dairy product. You can find calcium in a variety of other foods such as proteins, fruits and vegetables.”
This is especially important if you’re:
— Allergic to dairy.
— Following a more plant-based diet.
Proctor notes that “one cup of milk provides approximately 300 milligrams of calcium that’s naturally occurring.” But there are several “nondairy foods that contribute similar amounts of calcium per serving.” Some have naturally-occurring calcium while others on this list have been fortified with calcium.
The following eight foods are excellent nondairy sources of calcium:
In particular, canned seafoods, including sardines and salmon with the bones are especially good sources of calcium. Lappe says one 3.75 ounce can of sardines packs a hefty 351 milligrams of calcium. A 3-ounce serving of canned salmon with the bones contains 180 milligrams of calcium.
In addition to calcium, salmon is also a rich source of vitamin D, which can help your body absorb calcium. It also provides plenty of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and is a good source of lean protein.
Shrimp is another good choice because it contains 77 milligrams of calcium per 3-ounce serving and is also a lean protein.
2. Fortified foods
Many food items are fortified with calcium and other nutrients. Cereals typically lead the list when it comes to calcium fortification. Lappe notes that depending on the cereal, you may be getting “upwards of 1,000 milligrams of calcium per 3/4 to 1-cup serving.”
Another breakfast staple — fortified orange juice — can also help you meet your daily calcium requirement. These juices typically contain 350 to 500 milligrams of calcium per 1 cup.
3. Plant-based milks
Nondairy milks such as oat and almond milk are also fortified with calcium. These beverages can contribute 100 to 300 milligrams per 8-ounce serving.
And while it’s technically dairy, A2 milk, or milk that contains only A2 proteins, rather than a mix of A1 and A2 proteins as is typical of cows’ milk, has been shown to be more digestible for people with lactose intolerance. Proctor says that A2 milk can be a good alternative for people who have difficulty digesting traditional dairy products.
4. Leafy greens
Most people know that leafy greens are a healthy inclusion in any diet because they’re high in fiber and contain a multitude of vitamins and minerals needed to maintain good health. But what might be less obvious is that they’re also excellent sources of dairy-free calcium.
— Collard greens. Lappe says a half cup of cooked collard greens contains 134 milligrams of calcium.
— Kale. Cooked kale contains 47 milligrams of calcium per 1/2 cup.
— Spinach. A cup of cooked spinach contains 240 milligrams of calcium.
— Okra. A cup of cooked okra contains 100 milligrams of calcium.
— Broccoli. While broccoli isn’t typically considered a “leafy” green, this bright green, cruciferous vegetable is a good source of calcium and fiber. Cooked broccoli contains 31 milligrams of calcium per 1/2 cup.
Beans, as the rhyme goes, are good for your heart. They also provide oodles of fiber, various vitamins and nutrients and are a good source of plant-based protein. They’re also excellent sources of calcium.
— Cooked soybeans provide 261 milligrams of calcium per 1 cup.
— Cooked white beans contain 81 milligrams of calcium per 1/2 cup.
— Cooked pinto beans provide 39 milligrams of calcium per 1/2 cup.
— Cooked red beans offer 25 milligrams of calcium per 1/2 cup.
Tofu is made from soybeans, so it’s no surprise that’s it’s a good source of calcium. Plus, many brands of tofu are made with added calcium sulfate, which further boosts tofu’s content of this important nutrient.
Lappe notes that a half cup of raw tofu that’s been prepared with calcium sulfate contains a whopping 434 milligrams of calcium.
Certain kinds of fruit can also provide lots of calcium. For example, one medium orange contains 60 milligrams of calcium, Lappe says.
Dried fruit is often an even better source of calcium. For example, dried figs contain 61 milligrams of calcium per 1/4 cup.
8. Sesame seeds
Though they may be tiny, sesame seeds pack a big calcium punch. A 1/4 cup of these beige seeds contain 351 milligrams of calcium.
How much calcium is enough?
“Daily calcium recommendations vary by age and sex based on different needs throughout the lifespan,” Lappe says.
— Children and adolescents aged 9 to 18 have the highest requirements at 1,300 milligrams per day.
— Adults are recommended to 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams per day, “especially for women and those who are pregnant and/or breastfeeding,” Lappe says.
“Three servings of dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese) will get you close to this recommendation of 1,000 milligrams per day,” Proctor says, “while also providing 13 essential nutrients.” But as noted, several of the nondairy foods on this list can get you across the line too. Plus, some of these nondairy foods “will also contribute additional important nutrients such as vitamin C and fiber.”
To supplement or not?
“If you have any concerns regarding your calcium levels, talk with your doctor about starting a calcium supplement,” Hardie says. “They may refer you to your local pharmacist for guidance around drug interactions or a registered dietitian to determine whether your diet is calcium-deficient or not.”
If you’re not able to meet your calcium needs through diet alone, a supplement might be a good idea, Lappe says. If you’re doing that, you should also consider whether you’re taking in sufficient vitamin D because that essential nutrient “greatly enhances the absorption of calcium. Supplementing with both can be helpful.”
Vitamin D is also present in a variety of foods, including salmon, sardines and egg yolks. Your body can also make vitamin D in your skin when it’s exposed to sunlight.
However, it’s possible to take in too much calcium, so you need to be careful that you’re not taking too much. For Lappe, the best advice is to talk with an expert. “If you’re concerned about calcium and other nutrient needs, consider reaching out to a dietitian for personal guidance. Their nutritional expertise can help ensure your body is receiving enough calcium, especially to lower the risk of bone loss down the road.”
8 nondairy foods that are high in calcium:
2. Fortifed foods.
3. Plant-based milks.
4. Leafy greens.
8. Sesame seeds.
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