Calcium Update: Get Calcium from Food, Not Pills

Calcium is extremely important to promote bone health and prevent osteoporosis. About 99% of the calcium in our body is stored in our teeth and bone, while the other 1% helps with muscle contraction, nerve conduction and formation of cell membranes.  Other vitamins and minerals are also important for bone mass and the absorption of calcium, such as vitamin D, vitamin K, and magnesium. 

Recent research suggests that consuming calcium in pill form rather than in food is not as effective and can increase certain health risks, such as:

  • Ineffectiveness at preventing bone loss
  • Slight increase in kidney stone formation
  • Associations to added heart risks

The great news is that getting enough calcium from food is relatively easy! Common sources are dairy products like milk or yogurt, but dairy products can be high in saturated fat and calories, so make sure to choose fat-free/low-fat versions. Some sources of calcium that are naturally low in saturated fat and good sources of healthy fat include broccoli, tofu, almonds, sardines, and collard greens. See below for a more detailed list.

What if you are lactose intolerant, strict vegetarian, or simply don’t like milk? Luckily, there are many other “milk alternatives” such as soy, almond, or rice milk that can provide up to 300mg of calcium per 8-oz cup. Read on for more ideas!

Isn’t getting calcium from food the same as supplements? Actually, no. The form of calcium used in fortification versus supplements can vary (usually carbonate or citrate). Additionally, the ability to absorb calcium changes. Calcium is better absorbed “little by little.” If you need to take a supplement to make for any calcium deficits in the diet, avoid taking more than 500 mg at a time.

Daily Recommendations:

Age                       Adequate Intake (mg)            Upper Level (mg)
4-8 years              800                                          2500
9-18 years            1300                                        2500
19- 49 years         1000                                        2500
50 and up              1200                                        2500
From the Institute of Medicine (IOM), 2011. 

Promoters of calcium absorption?Vitamin D & potassium found in bananas, beets, apricots, raisins to mention a few. 

Inhibitors of calcium absorption?Oxalic & phytic acid bind to calcium and inhibit absorption. These are found in spinach, beet greens, okra, peppers and wheat bran, flax seed, soybeans respectively, which is why calcium from dairy sources are better absorbed (for the most part!). High intake of sodium, caffeine, and protein increase calcium excretion from the body.

Healthy Sources of Calcium:
Food                                      Portion             Calcium in mg
Plain, low fat yogurt               8 oz                    415
Sardines w/bones                   3 oz                    372
Collards, cooked                     1 cup                  357
Fruit, low fat yogurt                8 oz                    343
Ricotta cheese                        4 oz                     335
Skim milk                               8 oz                     302
Almond milk                          8 oz                      300
Rice milk (fortified)                8 oz                      300
Soymilk, fortified                   1 cup                    200-300
Tofu                                       1 ⁄ 2 cup                120-350
Figs, dried                              5 pieces                258
Mozzarella Cheese                 1 oz                      207
Cheddar/Muenster Cheese     1 oz                     203
Blackstrap molasses               1 TBS                    187
Sesame seeds                         2 TBS                    176
Kelp                                        3.5 oz                   168
Salmon, canned w/bones       3 oz                      167
Turnip greens, cooked            1/2 cup                126 
Soy nuts                                 1 ⁄ 4 cup                 126
Swiss chard                            1 cup                     102
Broccoli, cooked                     1 cup                     100
Cottage cheese, fat free         4 oz                       100
Kale, cooked                           1 ⁄ 2 cup                  90
Almond butter                        2 TBS                      86
Bok Choy , cooked                  1 ⁄ 2 cup                 79
Tempeh                                   1  ⁄2 cup                 77
Mustard greens, cooked          1 ⁄ 2 cup                 75
Navy/black beans, cooked      1/2 cup                  64
Brussels sprouts                       8 sprouts              56
Black beans, cooked                 ½ cup                52
Almonds or brazil nuts             2 TBS                    50
Soybeans, cooked                    1/2 cup                 44
Chickpeas, cooked                   ½ cup                40
Raisins                                      1/3 cup                27

Inspiration & Resources:

  • All You Need to Know About Calcium. Integrative Therapies Program Nutrition Resources. August 2011. 
  • Higher Doses of Vitamin D Requires to Protect Your Bones. September 2012, Vol. 30, Number 7.
  • Boning Up On Calcium. Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter. October 2012, Vol. 30, Number 8.

Edited by Tcabrarr