Best foods for calcium

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo you want to consume more calcium?  You’re not alone.  We’re bombarded with the message to boost calcium intake, to boost bone strength.  Calcium pills certainly seem like an easy fix, assuming you remember to take them, but in the past few years, questions were raised about possible links between calcium supplements and heart disease risk.  While later studies refuted some of those findings, some people may prefer getting calcium from food.  There are certainly good reasons to do so.

For one thing, food comes packed with other nutrients, not just calcium.  Other very important bone nutrients like phosphorus, protein, magnesium and potassium are found in many high calcium foods.

So what are the best food sources?  It depends on what your priorities are.  You might think in terms of price, or in terms of the most calcium for the calories, or the most calcium per serving.  And of course taste preferences and convenience are key factors.  A food might be a dynamite source of calcium, but if you don’t like it, it’s not going to help you.  Here are some of the best sources of calcium:

Milk

Milk is one of the best known high calcium foods.  It’s widely available and inexpensive.  Kids like it.  It has plenty of other nutritional benefits, such as high protein content.  In general, the lower the fat content of the milk, the more calcium.  Here are some values for one 8 oz cup of milk:

  • skim milk 300 mg
  • 1% fat milk   305 mg
  • 2% milk  300 mg
  • whole milk  275 mg
  • sheep’s milk  470 mg.  It’s an acquired taste for many people.  Also probably hard to find.

If you drink milk and your typical glass holds more than 8 fluid ounces, you’re getting proportionately more calcium.  Also keep in mind, some milks are fortified with added milk solids or protein, which can increase the calcium content a bit.  But in general, milks run about 300 mg of calcium per 8 fluid ounces.  Unless it’s sheep’s milk.

Cheese

Cheese is another good source of calcium.  Hard cheeses have the most, at 200-300 mg calcium per ounce.

  • Cheddar  210 mg
  • Gruyere  290 mg
  • Mozzarella  220 mg
  • Parmesan 330 mg
  • Swiss  250 mg

Soft cheeses vary in calcium intake, depending on the cheese’s moisture content.

  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta 370 mg
  • 1/2 cup part-skim ricotta  340 mg
  • 4 oz low fat cottage cheese  70 mg

Yogurt

Since it’s made out of milk, yogurt is also a good source of calcium.  But here’s an unexpected twist: Greek style yogurt is actually lower calcium than regular yogurt.  Why is that?  Because when yogurt is strained to make the thicker Greek style, a lot of the calcium is lost in the liquid that’s filtered out.  A 6-ounce container of plain low fat yogurt has about 310 mg of calcium, similar to a glass of milk.  The same amount of low fat Greek style yogurt has about 200 mg.  That’s quite a difference.  And yogurt that contains fruit or other add-ins will be lower in calcium than plain yogurt because those added ingredients are displacing yogurt in the container.

Kefir is a yogurt-like beverage made from milk.  An 8 ounce cup of plain low fat kefir has about 300 mg of calcium.

Plant-based “milks”

Plant based milks — from soy, almonds, rice and coconut — are increasingly popular, but don’t count on them for calcium unless they contain added calcium, in the form of calcium carbonate (which can exacerbate constipation for some people).  Plant milks are not naturally high in calcium.  Plus except for soy milk, plant milks are extremely low protein. Kind of like drinking a calcium carbonate-spiked white soft drink, since most are also sweetened with sugar.

Vegetables

Vegetables, especially greens, are surprisingly good sources of calcium, not to mention plenty of other nutrients.

  • cooked chopped collard greens      360 mg
  • cooked spinach                                   245 mg
  • cooked chopped kale                         180 mg
  • cooked beet greens                            165 mg
  • cooked chopped Swiss chard           100 mg

Legumes are another high calcium vegetable.  Tofu is especially high calcium when the preparation process uses calcium sulfate, but is still a significant source when prepared with other methods.  Cooked beans, have anywhere from 50 (ex: black beans) – 140 (white beans) mg of calcium per cup cooked.  Lentils have about 40 mg per cup cooked.

Prepared Foods

Of course, anything you make with milk or other high calcium ingredients will be a good source of calcium.  Such as:

  • Mac and cheese (made with real milk, that is)
  • Smoothies with milk or yogurt
  • Pizza or other cheesy foods
  • Creamy soups made with milk, such as cream of tomato
  • Burritos and tacos made with refried beans and cheese
  • Pudding: I’ve been into pudding lately, home made with low fat milk.  Of course, it’s also sugar-sweetened, so I wouldn’t depend on pudding as a frequent calcium source.
  • What’s a good food calcium strategy?

To maximize absorption of the calcium you eat, stick to about 300-400 mg at any one time.  That’s about one cup of milk or yogurt, or 1-1/2 oz of cheese.  If you want to aim for the recommended intake for an adult (800-1200 mg/day), you could divide that up into 3 roughly equal amounts.  Milk on cereal or yogurt at breakfast, cheese at lunch and a dinner that includes beans and greens.

My strategy is to get most of my calcium from food, relying on a supplement (calcium citrate) for about 300 mg/day.

  1. Morning: a small bowl of yogurt, or cereal with milk and yogurt or a glass of kefir
  2. Midday: yogurt (if I didn’t have it earlier) or cheese (ex: in a salad or melted on toast)
  3. Evening: cheese on pizza or pasta or a casserole, or tofu cooked into an Asian style dish, or a dish that includes beans and/or greens, or is made with milk, such as mac and cheese.

If any of these meals doesn’t include a high calcium food, I’ll substitute a supplement, but only once a day.

What’s my point?  I don’t advise that you just take a bunch of calcium supplements every day and ignore the food sources.  In all cases, these high calcium foods are also full of other key nutrients.  You get a lot more nutritional bang for your buck.

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