Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and almost 99 percent of the body’s calcium is stored in the structure of the bones and teeth. The truth is, though, many of us aren’t eating enough foods high in calcium. (And hint: It’s not always about dairy.)
How do you benefit from eating high-calcium foods? Foods that provide calcium support functions including bone building, nerve conduction,
As you get older, or if you’re pregnant/nursing or dealing with a condition that depletes calcium, you’ll benefit from getting extra calcium in your diet. Let’s dive in to the best foods high in calcium, how they work to support overall health and some ways that you can use these high-calcium foods in recipes.
What Is Calcium? Role of Calcium in the Body
Calcium is an essential chemical element found within the human body that typically appears as a soft silver-gray metal. Not only is calcium stored in the bones and teeth of humans and many other animals, but it’s found inside certain layers of the Earth’s crust. (1)
What is the role of calcium in the body? Bone calcium is used as a storage area to release calcium into the bloodstream when it is needed. Calcium is needed for so much more than bone health, though. Eating calcium-rich foods makes it possible for our bodies to achieve optimal nerve transmission (or “intercellular nerve communication”), blood clotting, hormone secretion and muscle contraction. (2) Another surprising benefit of eating calcium-rich foods? They may help to control your appetite and potentially facilitate weight loss. It’s believed that calcium foods can enhance sensations of satisfaction after eating, especially when someone is following a low-fat diet or restricting calorie (energy) intake. (3)
Blood calcium is tightly controlled since it plays so many critical functions, including balancing your body’s acid/alkaline body and pH. The body borrows calcium from the bones as needed. In fact, this happens so often that the bones are actually rebuilt about every 10 years. Calcium is also important for controlling levels of magnesium, phosphorus and potassium in the blood.
How many grams of calcium do you need per day to meet your calcium needs? According to the National Institutes of Health, here are the recommended daily value for calcium: (4a)
- Birth to 6 months, 200 mg
- Infants 7–12 months, 260 mg
- Children 1–3 years, 700 mg
- Children 4–8 years, 1,000 mg
- Children 9–13 years, 1,300 mg
- Teens 14–18 years, 1,300 mg
- Adults 19–50 years, 1,000 mg
- Adult men 51–70 years, 1,000 mg
- Adult women 51–70 years, 1,200 mg
- Adults 71 years and older, 1,200 mg
- Pregnant and breastfeeding teens, 1,300 mg
- Pregnant and breastfeeding adults, 1,000 mg
Top 10 Foods High in Calcium
Most people immediately think of dairy products when they hear calcium, especially milk. While milk and other dairy products are certainly good sources of calcium, they aren’t the only options. It might surprise you that many different types of nondairy plant and animal-derived foods — including vegetables, fish, nuts and beans — also provide calcium. (4b)
Below are the top 10 foods high in calcium based on calcium content:
- Sardines (canned with bones included) — 1 cup: 569 milligrams (57 percent DV)
- Yogurt or Kefir — 1 cup: 488 milligrams (49 percent DV)
- Raw Milk plus (whey protein, made from milk) — 1 cup: 300 milligrams (30 percent DV)
- Cheese — 1 ounce: 202 milligrams (20 percent DV)
- Kale (raw) — 1 cup: 90.5 milligrams (9 percent DV)
- Okra (raw) — 1 cup: 81 milligrams (8 percent DV)
- Bok Choy — 1 cup: 74 milligrams (7 percent DV)
- Almonds — 1 ounce: 73.9 milligrams (7 percent DV)
- Broccoli (raw) — 1 cup: 42.8 milligrams (4 percent DV)
- Watercress — 1 cup: 41 milligrams (4 percent DV)
Benefits of Foods High in Calcium
- Support Bone Health
- May Help Prevent Cancer
- Aid Weight Management
- Improve Blood Pressure and Heart Health
1. Support Bone Health
More than 10 million U.S. adults are affected by osteoporosis, which is one of the leading causes of broken bones in the elderly and affects more women than men. It likely won’t come as a surprise that foods high in calcium support bone and skeletal health. Depending on the body’s needs, calcium can either be added to bone by cells called osteoblasts or removed from bone by cells called osteoclasts.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation states, “Calcium and vitamin D are essential to building strong, dense bones when you’re young and to keeping them strong and healthy as you age.” (5) Calcium is especially critical in the teens and early 20s when bones are achieving their peak density/mass. The greater the peak bone mass people achieve when they are younger, the longer they can delay osteoporosis or loss of bone mass at a later age.
Calcium intake remains important as someone reaches older age. Ideal sources of calcium for bone health include raw/fermented dairy products and leafy green veggies, since these also provide nutrients like magnesium, potassium and vitamin K. Unfortunately, many adults lack quality calcium foods in their diets. And according to the World Health Organization, “There has been considerable debate about whether current recommended intakes of calcium are adequate to maximize peak bone mass and to minimize bone loss and fracture risk in later life.” (6)
2. May Help Prevent Cancer
Studies have shown that consuming calcium-rich foods is associated with a decreased risk of certain types of cancer, especially colon and rectal cancers. Findings from the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition Cohort study found that men and women who had the highest intakes of calcium through both their diets and supplements had a reduced risk of colorectal cancer compared with those who had the lowest calcium intakes. (7)
The evidence is not currently strong enough to recommend calcium supplements for the prevention of colon cancer, but eating foods with calcium may have the same effect. (There’s actually a link between calcium supplements and heart attacks and potentially higher risk for prostate cancer too, so it’s best to get the mineral from calcium-rich food sources.)
3. Aid Weight Management
Certain clinical studies have found that there is a connection between higher calcium intake from foods high in calcium and lower body weight. It is believed that calcium in the diet can bind to fat in the digestive system, helping it be excreted and possibly preventing some fat absorption, therefore helping lower the amount of calories that actually contribute to fat gain. (8)
4. Improve Blood Pressure and Heart Health
Foods high in calcium help relax smooth muscle tissues found in the veins and arteries. Calcium can also help prevent blood clotting and help reduce blood pressure. In fact, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) recommends a diet high in calcium-rich foods like yogurt or kefir because these are foods that help improve blood pressure. (9) (Note: The natural fat found in dairy products has been shown to have certain benefits, so I always recommend full-fat dairy over low-fat dairy.)
How Much Calcium Do You Need Per Day?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1,000 milligrams a day for adult men and women under the age of 50. The RDA increases to 1,200 to 2,000 milligrams a day for adults 50–70 and older, since more calcium is needed to protect aging bones. (10)
In many parts of the world, most adults get less calcium than they need for overall health, especially bone health. For example, in many Asian countries it’s common for adults to consume critically low amounts of dietary calcium, with intake levels often less than 400 to 500 milligrams per day. (11) One large study found that across the 74 countries, the average national dietary calcium intake ranged from 175 to 1233 milligrams/day. (12)
Compared to other minerals, we need a higher amount of calcium each day — making foods high in calcium very important for a number of reasons. In fact, we are thought to have enough calcium in our bodies to constitute 2 percent of our total body weight. What happens when you don’t get enough calcium? Calcium deficiency symptoms and risks can include:
- Higher chance of developing osteopenia or osteoporosis
- Tooth decay
- Bone fractures
- Muscle tension
- High blood pressure
- Hardening of the arteries and hypertension
- PMS symptoms
- Higher risk for kidney stones and gallstones
- Higher risk for heart disease and diabetes
- Higher risk for certain types of cancer
Where to Find and How to Use Calcium Foods
- If you can’t tolerate dairy products — for example, because you have lactose intolerance or a sensitivity to conventional dairy — then it’s important to eat enough non-dairy calcium-rich foods. Some of the best high-calcium foods that are dairy-free include almonds, navy beans, black eyed peas, organic edamame/tofu, tortillas made with lime, sardines, rockfish, clams, seaweed, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, butternut squash and sweet potato.
- Whether you eat dairy and meat or not, a great way to load up on essential nutrients and antioxidants is to eat a variety of calcium-rich vegetables. Examples of vegetables high in calcium include broccoli, broccoli rabe, kale, Chinese cabbage, collard greens, okra, Swiss chard, green beans, rapini, carrots, turnip, rhubarb and watercress.
- Are there any calcium-rich fruits? Yes — oranges and dried figs, for example, both provide some calcium.
- Full-fat, grass-fed dairy foods (ideally those that are fermented like yogurt, some cheeses or kefir) are good source of not only calcium, but also vitamin K, phosphorus and to some degree vitamin D too.
- A great way to eat a bunch of high-calcium foods all in one shot is to make a big salad with leafy greens, your favorite raw fermented cheese, almonds and a sesame tahini dressing.
- Beans, greens and sweet potatoes are all sources of calcium, so consider making a big batch of soup (such as in your crockpot) that includes these foods and plenty of your favorite herbs and spices.
- Whip up a smoothie using fermented yogurt, almond butter and berries or your favorite fruit (bonus if you can squeeze in some spinach or greens).
- Remember that magnesium is key to calcium absorption, since these two minerals have a close working relationship. If you have a calcium deficiency or imbalance, then you are more likely to have a magnesium deficiency and vice versa (magnesium deficiency can often be a precursor to calcium imbalance). To utilize calcium properly, make sure to eat foods high in magnesium regularly — like leafy greens, cocoa, avocado and bananas (notice how many of these foods also provide calcium).
You’ll get the most benefit from calcium if you avoid foods that cause inflammation, take a toll on gut health and interfere with nutrient absorption. Inflammatory foods to avoid include those with added sugar, processed grains, refined vegetable oils and synthetic ingredients.
Do Calcium Supplements Really Work?
What kind of calcium should you take if you’re worried about being calcium-deficient? Research suggests that supplements are not ideal for getting more calcium because there may be potential negative effects of calcium supplements — especially when taken in high doses and when someone is not getting enough vitamin D, magnesium and other key nutrients.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine states, “Most studies show little evidence of a relationship between calcium intake and bone density, or the rate of bone loss … calcium supplements appear to have a negative risk-benefit effect, and so should not be used routinely in the prevention or treatment of osteoporosis.” (13) There may also be a link between high levels of calcium (mostly from supplements) and hardening/stiffening of the arteries, which can lead to heart disease. (14) Very high levels of calcium can also interact with drugs intended to treat heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy and other conditions, plus contribute to kidney stones. For those reasons, most experts now agree that the ideal way to get calcium is from a healthy diet that includes various sources of calcium.
If you are going to take a calcium supplement, what brand of calcium supplement is best? The two most popular types of calcium supplements are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. (15) If you are going to take calcium supplements, aim to only take about 500 milligrams at one time, since your body cannot absorb much more than this at once. If you need a larger dose, plan to split up doses throughout the day. Calcium is best absorbed when taken with food (and remember to make sure you’re not deficient in vitamin D or vitamin K!).
Calcium Foods Recipes
Below are healthy, simple recipe ideas that include one or more foods high in calcium, including calcium-fortified breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack options:
- Kale Caesar Salad with Salmon Recipe
- Creamy Broccoli Soup with Cheese Recipe
- Tangy Bean Salad Recipe
- Baked Mac and Cheese Casserole Recipe
- Sesame Tahini Recipe
- Yogurt Chia Seed Smoothie Bowl Recipe
What can too much calcium do to the body? It’s unlikely that you’d get an overwhelming amount of calcium from food sources alone. In fact, it’s believed that most adults in the U.S., and many other developed nations too, do not get enough calcium on a daily basis from their diets. However in very high amounts — such as from foods and supplements combined — calcium may cause side effects. These can include nausea, bloating, constipation (especially calcium carbonate supplements), dry mouth, abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, confusion and kidney stones.
If you experience indigestion, diarrhea and cramping when eating dairy foods, avoid these and get calcium from other sources. You might also find that you can tolerate raw milk, goat’s milk or sheep’s milk products but not conventional dairy from most cows. If you’re a vegetarian/vegan, be sure to get calcium from plant sources, including seaweed, green vegetables, beans, seeds and leafy greens. If you have a history of kidney stones or gallstones, talk to your doctor about the amount of calcium that is best for you.
- Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, mostly stored in the bones and teeth. Calcium’s functions include building bones, helping with nerve signaling and balancing other minerals.
- In general, calcium is found in the highest amounts in raw dairy products and green vegetables. Some of the top foods high in calcium include raw milk, yogurt, kefir, fermented cheeses, kale, sardines, broccoli, beans and almonds.
- Benefits of eating calcium-rich foods include protection against osteoporosis, bone loss, tooth decay, heart disease, diabetes and weight gain.
- It’s best to get calcium from calcium-rich foods rather than supplements. Supplements may be beneficial in some cases, but overall have not been shown to offer as much protection as a balanced, healthy diet.