Milk builds strong bones. That’s a phrase that’s been repeated for decades. But what does that statement imply? What it should say is that calcium builds strong bones, because it’s the calcium that matters for bone health. If you are allergic, lactose intolerant, or just choose not to include dairy in your diet, there are plenty of non-dairy foods that are high in calcium. But let’s first start with the role calcium has in the body.
What Does Calcium Do?
Calcium is not only important for bones, but it’s also crucial for the signaling of nerves and muscle function. In fact, did you know that calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body? Ninety-nine percent of the calcium in your body is stored in your bones and teeth.
Dietary requirements for calcium vary based on age and gender. For the average adult aged 19–50 years old, 1,000 mg per day of dietary calcium is recommended. Calcium requirements increase for women over age 50 to 1,200 mg. And for children 9–18 years old, 1,300 mg is recommended. As children grow, more calcium is needed to build strong bones and as women age, more calcium is needed to prevent bone loss.
Calcium absorption is the next thing to consider. Even if you think you’re consuming enough calcium, only about 30 percent of the calcium you consume is absorbed into the body. And certain factors affect calcium absorption, like age and pregnancy. The body absorbs less calcium as you enter adulthood, but increases during pregnancy due to the needs of the growing baby.
Foods can also affect how well calcium is absorbed. Small amounts of calcium are naturally eliminated through urine, feces, and sweat. Things like alcohol and caffeine will promote calcium excretion, thus preventing maximum absorption. Foods that contain vitamin D (like eggs) or simply getting a good dose of sunshine can help the body absorb more calcium. So remember, it’s not about the amount you consume but what your body absorbs that is important.
Speaking of consuming, let’s get to some calcium-rich foods! First, let's debunk the myth that dairy products are the only source of calcium. Here are some non-dairy, calcium-rich foods.
Our foods that contain calcium start in the sea with sardines. Yes, the small oily fish that doesn’t smell super great. You may not think that canned fish is necessarily rich in calcium, but these little babies pack a big punch of calcium content. Sardines contain about 350 mg of calcium per can or 46 mg of calcium per sardine. They are an easy way to get a good dose of calcium that doesn’t come from a supplement. Since these do come in a can, look for sardines that are packed in a high-quality oil like olive oil rather than canola oil.
You can enjoy sardines straight out of the can or add them to salads. They can also be used on crackers for a snack or really any main entree!
Garbanzo beans, chickpeas—whatever you want to call them—are a great source of calcium for your body! One cup of cooked chickpeas will give you 80 mg of calcium. It’s a wonderful plant-based source for those who are following a vegan diet to get in a good dose of calcium. Cooking the beans from scratch is always preferred but you can buy canned chickpeas, be sure to rinse them thoroughly before eating.
Chickpeas are versatile to use in recipes or just as a snack on their own! You can add them to soups, salads, rice dishes, or Indian-inspired curry dishes. They are meaty in texture so they hold up well in recipes.
Of all the nuts, almonds are the highest in calcium content. They are a common nut so they are easy to find and enjoy. One cup of almonds provides 378 mg of calcium. Though it’s unlikely you will consume a full cup of almonds in a sitting, that gives you an idea just how much calcium that small nut can provide for your body. A typical serving of almonds is more like 1/4 cup, so that would be about 95 mg of calcium, still a great amount!
Almonds are an easy food to enjoy because they are delicious as is! You can just grab a handful and snack away. You can also add them to other nuts and dried fruit to make a trail mix or add almonds to your smoothie for an extra kick of calcium. Many paleo baking recipes use almond flour so you can get calcium when you’re enjoying an almond flour muffin, too! They are a versatile food, so incorporate them as much as possible for a way to boost calcium levels in your daily diet and get all the nutrients your body deserves.
4. Collard Greens
When dairy is touted as being a good source of calcium, you wouldn’t expect vegetables to be, too, right? Well, think again because leafy greens, collard greens specifically, are a wonderful source of dietary calcium. In two cups of raw collard greens, you’re getting 104 mg of calcium.
Collard greens can be enjoyed raw chopped in a salad or sautéed in a stir-fry with other vegetables. They can also be used as a wrap in place of a tortilla or added to your favorite soup or stew. These leafy greens are hefty and hold up well so whether enjoyed raw or cooked, it’s a versatile green you can use in many different ways.
With these high-in-calcium food sources, you’re sure to find many different ways to enjoy the nutrients for better bone health without reaching for dairy or supplementation.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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