By Barbara Boughton
Once a woman hits menopause, getting enough calcium for bone health becomes a major concern. Women over age 60 are prone to osteoporosis — and the spinal, hip, and knee fractures that osteoporosis can bring. Yet adequate dietary calcium can help protect people from osteoporosis. Taking calcium supplements can help as well.
It’s not just menopausal women who should be concerned about getting enough calcium. As consumption of sugary soft drinks has risen among children and teenagers, intake of milk has also declined. But children and teenagers who are able to eat and drink enough calcium-enriched foods—as well as take in sufficient protein during meals—benefit from improved skeletal growth and bone mass. In fact, studies show that children who avoid, for prolonged periods, drinking calcium-containing milk have an almost three-fold higher risk for fracture than age-matched birth cohorts.
Dairy products are considered to be the easiest and cheapest sources of dietary calcium. Most people should have three to four servings of milk products daily in order to improve bone health and prevent osteoporosis. Studies have estimated that increasing dairy intake to three to four servings per day can reduce osteoporosis-related healthcare costs in the U.S. by $3.5 billion per year.
As well as calcium, it’s important to get enough calcium to enhance calcium absorption. What are your calcium and vitamin D requirements? Adults up to age 50 should get 1,000 mg of calcium and 200 International Units (IUs) of Vitamin D. Those over age 50, should intake at least 1,200 mg of calcium and 400 to 600 IUs of vitamin D each day.
Among foods with calcium, some are better than others for bone health. Yogurt is one of the best. It contains a hefty dose of calcium (415 mg per serving of plain, low-fat or non-fat per eight-ounce serving). Many varieties of yogurt are also fortified with vitamin D. Some brands of fat-free, plain yogurt contain 30 percent of the adult daily requirements for calcium and 20 percent of the adult daily requirements for vitamin D. Although protein-packed Greek yogurts are popular right now—because of their reputed health benefits—they are less useful than other yogurt types for staving off osteoporosis. Greek yogurts contain less calcium than other types of yogurt and very little vitamin D.
Besides dairy products — such as low-fat and non-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese — there are other foods that are good for your bones. Canned sardines and salmon are rich sources of calcium, and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines are also replete with vitamin D. Some vegetables contain a generous amount of calcium, including collard greens, turnip greens, kale, okra, Chinese cabbage, dandelion greens, mustard greens, and broccoli. Foods fortified with calcium and vitamin D—such as some juices, breakfast foods, soy milk, rice milk, cereals, and breads—can also add to the health of your bones.
The foods with the highest amounts of calcium are: plain low-fat yogurt; calcium-fortified orange juice; low-fat fruit yogurt; skim mozzarella cheese and cheddar cheese; canned sardines; reduced and nonfat milk; tofu made with calcium sulfate; fortified breakfast drinks; and calcium-fortified cereals. Vegetables that are the richest sources of calcium include turnip greens, kale, and Chinese cabbage. For those who are lactose-intolerant, eight ounces of calcium-fortified soy milk can have from 80 mg to 500 mg of calcium. Rice and almond calcium-fortified beverages can be good sources of calcium, too. To find out how much calcium is in these drinks, check the nutrition label on the back of these products at the grocery store.
If you want to eat for bone health, there are also some foods you should avoid. Heavy alcohol drinking (more than two drinks per day) can lead to bone loss, as can drinking more than three cups of coffee per day. Drinks high in caffeine, including coffee, tea, and caffeinated soft drinks, decrease calcium absorption and contributes to bone loss. Sodas also make it harder for the body to absorb calcium. Salty foods cause your body to lose calcium, too. To reduce the sodium in your diet, limit processed foods, canned foods, and salt added to the foods you eat each day. Aim for 2,400 mg or fewer mg of sodium per day.
Although beans contain calcium, they also are high in substances called phytates that interfere with your ability to absorb calcium. To reduce the phytate level in beans, soak them in water for several hours and cook them in fresh water. Wheat bran also contain high levels of phytates, which prevent your body from absorbing calcium. The phytates in wheat bran not only prevent the absorption of calcium in wheat bran but also prevent the absorption of calcium in foods eaten at the same time. For example, if you have milk and 100 percent wheat bran cereal together, your body can absorb some, but not all, of the calcium from the milk. The wheat bran in other foods like breads, however, is much less concentrated and unlikely to have a noticeable impact on calcium absorption.
Some vegetables with calcium can also contain ingredients called oxalates. Oxalates make it more difficult for you to absorb the calcium in vegetables. Foods with both calcium and oxalates include spinach, rhubarb, and beet greens.
As you can see, getting the right kind of calcium and the right amount of calcium from foods are not a simple matter. Yet it’s well worth the effort, since it will improve your bone health and strength—and may reduce your need for supplements.
- Food and Your Bones. Fact sheet. National Osteoporosis Foundation.
- Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium. National Institutes of Health.
- Calcium: An Important Nutrient that Builds Bones. Fact Sheet. Osteoporosis Canada.
- Calcium, Nutrition and Bone Health. Fact Sheet. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. aaos.org.
- Rizzoli, R. Dairy products, yogurts and bone health. Am J Clin. 2014; 99 (suppl): 1256S-62S.