When I say ‘calcium’ does ‘dairy’ pop straight into your head?
Dairy is one of the best sources of calcium and definitely the most well-known. But often we forget that calcium is found in other foods beyond the dairy aisle. Sardines, mustard greens, black-eyed peas and almonds all contain calcium in different amounts and are vital if you happen to be avoiding dairy for ethical reasons, have a bad reaction or just plain don’t like it.
Calcium is a mineral our body needs every day for strong bones and teeth.
99% of calcium in our body is stored in our bones and teeth helping to keep their structure rigid and strong, while also acting as a bank (think monopoly) where the body can draw calcium into the blood from the bones if our food intake of calcium is too low. We need to eat calcium-rich foods every day to offset natural losses in our body and prevent our bone calcium store being reabsorbed into the blood.
Adults 19 to 50 years olds need 700mg of calcium a day (UK).
(Pregnant/Over 50/Under 19? click here)
|Calcium per serve||size of one serving|
|Regular yogurt||488mg||200g tub|
|Canned sardines (in water)||486mg||90g small can|
|Low fat yogurt||386mg||200g tub|
|Fortified soy milk*||360mg||250ml glass|
|Collard greens||357mg||1 cup|
|Skimmed milk||341mg||250ml glass|
|Canned salmon||279mg||80g small can|
|Turnip greens||250mg||1 cup|
|Black-eyed peas, boiled||211mg||1 cup|
|Fortified almond milk*||175mg||250ml glass|
|Calcium-set tofu||163mg||¼ block about 85g|
|Dried figs||160mg||6 dried figs|
|Canned baked beans||154mg||1 cup|
*some brand variation in amount of calcium added.
Should we get calcium from milk?
Dairy generally has the most calcium, so a glass of milk or some yogurt will likely give you the most calcium bang for your buck. The calcium in diary is easily absorbed and digested by your body, and contains several other nutrients including protein as well as beneficial anti-inflammatory properties. Many dairy products like cream and cheese are high in saturated fat, so to get the maximum health benefits without the risk factors try and chose a low-fat option, or choose a smaller quantity of full fat if you prefer the taste. Having some milk or yogurt every day is a great easy way to make sure you are meeting your daily target of 700mg of calcium. We can live without dairy though, so it’s important to listen to your body and choose what’s right for you.
Having too much calcium and dairy (more than 3 glasses of milk a day) has been suggested to possibly increase the risk of ovarian and prostate cancer. While we need more research in this area, we can’t be confident yet that having an excessive amount of calcium or dairy is harmless.
Tinned salmon and sardines
Like humans, most of the calcium is found in the bones of salmon and sardines. Luckily for us the fish bones become soft and edible in the canning process. Salmon and sardines are both naturally rich in vitamin D too, equally important for bone health by helping the body absorb calcium and phosphorus. You could enjoy some delicious salmon pate blended with natural yogurt, or maybe try chargrilling sardines and tossed through a fresh green salad.
While dairy might be king of the calcium content, that doesn’t mean we should dismiss plants. Some sources are better than others, and while their calcium content is generally lower than dairy, they are also rich in other nutrients. Figuring out how much calcium you’re eating can be tricky though, as the oxalic and phytic acid in some vegetables can prevent some of the calcium being absorbed from your food into your body. Have a look at the table above for some calcium rich veggies.
Homemade plant milks such as almond and soy are delicious. While I love making them myself, they aren’t a good source of calcium unless they are fortified – when a liquid form of calcium supplement is added to boost the calcium content. It’s possible to buy your own calcium citrate to fortify your homemade plant milk, but generally it’s much easier to buy a store brand that’s already had calcium added to it. Kudos if you fortify your own! Depending on the brand, various other ingredients might be added too, sometimes the manufacturers can sneak in a hefty amount of sugar if you forget to choose the ‘unsweetened’ type.
Soy milk could be the best of the bunch with the closest range of nutrients to cow’s milk, with similar amounts of carbohydrate, protein and when fortified – calcium. Unusually for a plant source, the protein in soy milk contains all the essential building blocks called amino acids that we need to make our own protein in our body. This makes it a particularly good choice for vegans and vegetarians, happy days.
Having at least two glasses of cow or soy milk a day together with some plant or fish calcium-rich foods can help you meet your daily calcium needs for strong bones.