Sometimes we hear that certain things are good for us so often that we forget to ask what they actually are. Calcium is one of those elements. It’s frequently tossed around as a nutrient that is crucial for our bodies, but what is calcium?
Calcium is more than milk’s biggest brag tag. It is a mineral that is necessary for many different processes in our bodies to run smoothly. Because our bodies don’t produce calcium naturally, the only way we can ensure that we are getting enough of this nutrient is to consume foods that are abundant in it. Including calcium-rich foods in our diets can improve how our bodies function on a daily basis and the benefits can last a lifetime.
What Are Some Health Benefits of calcium?
Regulating Blood Pressure:
Why is it important to maintain low blood pressure? Having high blood pressure means that our heart and blood vessels are working overtime but also less effectively. This can lead to a higher risk of having health issues such as heart problems or strokes.
This is where eating calcium-rich foods can come in handy. Calcium helps your blood vessels expand and contract when they need to. When we need more oxygen, such as during an intense run or a stressful situation, our blood vessels expand. Then, when the strenuous period is over, they contract to their regular size. This process ensures that our body gets the oxygen it needs.
Preserving Bone Health:
One of the most common places to find calcium in the body is in the bones. Our bones are important for several reasons. They give shape and support to our bodies. Additionally, our bones help protect our organs. Our skull, for example, creates a safe place for our brain to reside.
If we don’t consume enough calcium, our body forages for it in other places, such as our bones. Depleting our bones’ store of calcium leads to increased fragility. As we all know, fragile things break easily, something we want to avoid when it comes to our bones. Calcium helps keep our bones dense and strong.
How Our Bodies Regulate Our Calcium Levels:
We have specific calcium requirements which need to be met for our biological processes and our bodies have developed mechanisms to regulate that amount. If we don’t consume enough calcium, our blood calcium level will be low. When this happens, the parathyroid gland in our body (located in our neck, behind the thyroid gland- hence named parathyroid) secretes parathyroid hormone (or PTH). This hormone cues our bones to start supplying our blood stream with additional amounts of calcium. Thus, our bodies regulate our calcium levels and ensure that everything is operating in a healthy and happy way.
What does calcium deficiency lead to?
Because calcium is so crucial for so many of our bodily functions, not getting enough of this nutrient can cause a slew of issues. For example, you might experience any of the following symptoms:
- Muscle cramps
- Low energy levels
- Extremely dry skin
- Brittle hair or nails
- Osteoporosis (a thinning of the bones that can lead to fractures and other injuries)
These are just some of the ways that a calcium deficiency may manifest itself in your body. If you are experiencing any of these systems, try examining your diet to make sure that you are including enough calcium rich foods.
How much calcium should you be eating a day? That depends on two factors—age and biological sex.
https://i.pinimg.com/originals/bc/99/a3/bc99a304312334e1a7a309e39f4d6614.gif. Calcium Intake Infographic. April, 2021.
What about kids? According to Dr. Jen Trachtenberg, Board Certified Pediatrician and author of two parenting books, The Smart Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Kids through Check Ups, Illnesses and Accidents (2010), and Good Kids, Bad Habits: The Real Age Guide to Raising Healthy Children (2007), calcium should not be overlooked in the daily diets of children.
Kids don’t have a milk requirement, but they do have a calcium requirement. The AAP recommends 500 mg per day 1-3 years old and 800 mg per day 4-8 yrs old and 1,300 mg per day 9-18yrs old.
I tell parents to think of bone as a savings account; kids’ bodies constantly make deposits and withdrawals of bone tissue. During childhood through adolescence more bone is deposited and then withdrawn as the skeleton grows both in size and density. A diet rich in calcium and other minerals keeps withdrawals of bone loss to a minimum. Kids with the highest peak bone mass AFTER adolescence have the greatest advantage in terms of future bone health. So optimizing bone health early in life is crucial in preventing future fractures and osteoporosis. Soda, alcohol, high caffeine consumption, antacids with aluminum, calorie restriction, certain medications and a lack of exercise are some common causes of low bone density.
Have more medical or parenting questions about your little ones? Feel free to check out Dr. Jen’s video series, Pediatrician in Your Pocket, for more tips on best practices for your child’s health.
Calcium Rich Foods for Bones
When I was younger, I was always told to finish my milk because it was good for my bones. While I had no idea if that was true at the time, it certainly is! Whole milk is a great source of calcium, containing about 276 mg per serving. If you prefer to drink something a little lighter, like skim milk, don’t worry about missing out on your calcium. Milks with less fat still contain high amounts of this nutritious mineral!
Yogurt has gone through quite the reputation change over the years. Once considered as food for children and people on diets, it is now known for its merit —a great snack packed with nutritious value. A regular single-serving container of yogurt can hold about 187 mg of calcium. Make sure to check the label for sugar before you make your choice though. Many brands of yogurt pack in the sugar for a sweeter taste, but you can usually find some healthier alternatives on the shelves.
It is widely known that adding cheese can level up almost any meal. Unfortunately, not all cheeses are created equal in terms of nutritious value. Some types are very high in salt levels and saturated fat. However, it’s definitely possible to find some cheeses that are not! Try reaching for parmesan, feta, cottage cheese or ricotta. These cheese choices will have a lower fat content and still contain a high percentage of your daily recommended intake of calcium.
Turning towards salmon as an option for a food high in calcium is always a strong choice. A fresh piece of salmon can hold up to 340 mg of calcium! If you eat fish, this can be a great way to up your calcium levels and keep your meals lean and light. If you’re not a fan of preparing fresh fish, you can always opt for canned salmon, which contains about 350 mg of calcium per serving.
Calcium Rich Foods That Are Non-Dairy
If you are allergic to dairy or you prefer not to consume it for other reasons, you still have plenty of calcium rich food options. Sardines are high in calcium and easy to make. If you like you can also reach for canned bone-in sardines. These are the easiest to eat and offer up to 325 mg of calcium per serving.
2: Collard Greens
Dark, leafy greens like collard greens are a great way to get in some calcium throughout your day. This veggie packs in about 84 mg of calcium per cup. Because collard greens are so versatile, it’s easy to avoid boredom when you eat them. Throw them into a soup or salad, fold them into an omelette or toss them into a chili.
3: Almond Butter
Once relatively unknown, almond butter can now be found on the shelves of grocery stores everywhere. A great alternative to peanut butter, almond butter packs about 54 mg of calcium in a tablespoon sized scoop. Not too shabby! This can be a great choice to add to a morning smoothie or include in your child’s lunch.
Tofu—the little engine that could of soy-based foods. While it looks relatively unassuming, tofu packs a huge nutritional punch. A half cup serving of tofu can have anywhere from 350-430 mg of calcium! Because it’s not too flavorful on its own, it is great to pair with delicious sauces or drop into some stir fries. It won’t steal the show, but provide a nice texture along with making the dish a good source of important nutrients.
Calcium Rich Foods For Vegans
Choosing a vegan diet doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on vital nutrients like calcium. Like collard greens, kale is a dark and leafy vegetable that can be a good go-to calcium-rich food choice. One cup has about 100 mg of calcium. Try baking small pieces of kale in the oven for a crunchy snack or adding it to a soup for some extra nutrition.
Okra holds about 80mg of calcium per one cup serving. If you haven’t tried cooking with okra before, now is the time to get baking (or sautéing or frying). While okra makes a great dish on it’s own, it can be combined with other foods to make a more complete meal. You can try frying it for a heartier option or pickling it for a snack with some zing.
There is something very comforting about beans, made even better by how much nutritional value they have. If you don’t eat meat (or if you do), beans can be a great source of protein and calcium. You can do almost anything with them—make a spicy chili, eat them as a side…you can even bake them into desserts! A tablespoon of raw pinto beans has about 14mg of calcium, which can really add up depending on the dish you choose to create.
Figs are so much fun. If you are craving something sweet, but want to keep your treat natural and nutritious, figs are one of your best bets. You can enjoy them raw (I personally love the sticky texture) or you can roast them for a warm and delightful experience. There are plenty of fig spreads out there as well, if you’d like to add it to your next charcuterie board to impress your guests. Two figs have around 65mg of calcium.
Including Calcium-Rich Foods in Your Daily Diet:
Consuming enough calcium doesn’t just help us at a certain age, rather the benefits last throughout our lives. Take a moment to think about the foods you eat. Try recording how much calcium you are getting in an average day and making adjustments based on that number. If you’d like, you can work to incorporate more of the foods from this list into your diet. Share this list with a friend and make a calcium-rich food plan together!