You hear that calcium is essential to strong bones. And
that the best source of calcium is dairy products. But is that the whole story?
How should you get the calcium you need? And what are some of the most healthy,
calcium rich foods? Read on to see what the science says so you can make the
best decisions for your health.
As a teenager, I remember seeing TV commercials featuring
celebrities and athletes proudly wearing milk mustaches, gazing into the
camera, and asking, “Got Milk?”
As the grandson of the co-founder of the Baskin-Robbins ice
cream chain, that question had a particular resonance for me. And as the son of
John Robbins, who walked away from an opportunity to helm that chain for
ethical reasons, I knew the answer that fit for me.
“Yessir! I got almond milk!”
The Got Milk? campaign, which ran from 1993 to 2014, made an
effective and lasting impression on consumers. And it’s one reason why so
many consumers, even today, strongly associate calcium with milk and dairy
But is this message valid? Are milk and dairy
products really the best places to get calcium? Are other calcium rich foods
better for you? And is calcium as important as we’ve been told it is?
What’s the Role of Calcium for Your Health?
Calcium is the fifth most abundant element in the earth’s
crust. It’s just about everywhere in the form of rocks and minerals. And it
makes its way into plants and then into the animals who eat plants.
Calcium is an essential mineral for human health.
It’s primarily stored in your bones and teeth. (And it’s what makes your pearly
whites so strong).
More calcium exists in your body than any other mineral. That works
out well because you need calcium to perform some essential functions.
- Carry messages between your brain and the rest of
- Your nerves and muscles to move;
- Transport enzymes and hormones through your blood to
where they need to go;
- Keep your muscles, nerves, and blood vessels
functioning well; and
Play a vital role in maintaining healthy blood
Calcium also enables the
most critical muscle in your body — your heart — to
receive signals and contract. Without calcium, your heart wouldn’t
How Much Calcium Do You Need?
According to the U.S. FDA, the Recommended Dietary
Allowance for adults 18 years and older is 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium
The FDA says that your calcium needs increase to
1,300 mg per day during teenage years, pregnancy, and lactation. And that
postmenopausal women may also need to increase their calcium intake.
But these numbers may be high. The National Health
Service of Britain recommends considerably less calcium per day — only
So how much calcium you need apparently depends on which
side of the pond you stand! (Or maybe, just possibly, it could also depend on
how much food industry lobbyists influence your government bureaucrats.)
Calcium Myths and Controversies You Need to Know
Calcium may be one of the most talked-about nutrients. But
that doesn’t mean everything you hear is necessarily true.
Especially when information is coming from trade
organizations, food companies, or manipulated governments. (See more about the
dairy industry’s whitewashing in our article here.)
Here are some of the most widespread myths about calcium:
Myth #1 — Dairy Products Are the Best Sources of Calcium
Dairy is high in calcium. But contrary to
popular belief, high dairy consumption doesn’t correlate with better
In fact, osteoporosis and bone fractures are most common in the United States, Finland, Sweden,
and the United Kingdom — the countries where people consume the most dairy
Eating a lot of dairy products can also increase your
risk for certain cancers, such as prostate, breast,
lung, and ovarian. This may be due to
sex hormones like estrogen and other growth factors naturally present in milk.
Dairy products deliver a lot more than just calcium.
They come with animal proteins, lactose, hormones,
contaminants, and even antibiotics.
Of course, there are other downsides to
the industrialized dairy industry, like that it’s cruel to animals and damaging
to the planet. (For more concerns about dairy, check out this article.)
Myth #2 — Getting Enough Calcium Is the Most Important
Thing You Can Do for Bone Health
Calcium is important for bone health. But calcium
isn’t the only thing your bones need to be strong.
Vitamin D — which you make with the help of the
sun — is also essential.
People in countries like India, Peru, and Japan, eat around
one-third the amount of calcium that Americans do, yet in these countries, bone
fractures are rare. They have much higher exposure to sunlight
due to geographic location, which naturally increases their vitamin D levels.
You can get the vitamin D you need with just about 15
minutes per day in the sun. Taking a vitamin D-containing supplement can also be beneficial.
Being active as you age is also highly recommended, and has been proven to
help prevent fracture. Exercises to focus on for bone health especially
include weight-bearing activities, such as walking, running, tennis, dancing,
stair-climbing, and weight-lifting.
Myth #3 — Everyone Should Take a Calcium-Containing
Supplement, Just to be Safe
I’ve known many people who take calcium supplements
fervently in an attempt to keep their bones strong as they age. Around 43% of
Americans take a calcium-containing supplement, including 70% of
But is this helpful?
Research suggests that for many people, calcium
supplements may do more harm than good.
The risks of calcium supplementation are especially significant for people with a history of
And this isn’t a new finding. A large epidemiological
study published in the New England Journal of
Medicine in 1997 looked at calcium intake and kidney stone incidence
among almost 92,000 women between the ages of 34 to 59.
The women, who had never had a kidney stone at the outset of
the study, were followed with questionnaires from 1980 to 1992. The researchers
found that those women with higher dietary calcium intakes had reduced risk for
kidney stones, while those who took calcium supplementsincreased their
risk for kidney stones by 20%.
The 2011 Women’s Health Initiative randomized clinical
trial observed kidney stone incidence among 36,282
postmenopausal women. Half were given calcium plus vitamin D daily, and half
were given a placebo.
Those on calcium and vitamin D daily for seven years had a
17% increase in kidney stone incidence. This is thought to
be because high doses of supplemental calcium make your body excrete more
calcium in your urine, promoting kidney stone formation.
Calcium Supplements May Also Increase the Risk for
A study published in BMJ in
2008 followed 1,471 healthy postmenopausal women in New Zealand over five
years, looking for adverse cardiovascular outcomes. Half of the women were
given a placebo, while the other half were given calcium supplementation.
Those who took calcium supplements experienced more heart
and other unwelcome cardiac events.
Calcium supplements may increase blood calcium, which can cause stiff arteries
and increase blood pressure. Both of these contribute to the development
Calcium supplements can also prevent certain medications
from working, as well. Specifically, they can reduce the absorption of
certain antibiotics, anticonvulsants, and even, ironically enough, medications
used to treat osteoporosis.
So if dairy products aren’t the best source of calcium, and
if calcium supplementation comes with considerable drawbacks, the question
is: Where should you get your calcium?
You might want to look at where cows get their calcium
9 Plant-Based, Calcium Rich Foods
Below are some of the most naturally calcium rich plant
Plant-Based, Calcium Rich Foods #1 — Seeds