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Calcium is an important nutrient for healthy bones, heart, muscles, and nerves. It helps blood vessels expand and contract, it helps glands secrete hormones and enzymes, and it’s important for muscle contraction. Your body needs calcium to perform these and other vital functions, so if you don’t get enough in your diet, your body will take it from your bones, weakening them. This can lead to osteoporosis. In addition, calcium deficiency increases the risk of colon cancer.
Milk and dairy products have traditionally been the main sources of calcium. Government nutritional guidelines (per the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) recommend including low-fat dairy products in our diet. But, based on studies performed over the last several years, some experts from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health suggest limiting the intake of these products to no more than two servings a day, since dairy is high in vitamin A—which, paradoxically, can cause bones to weaken. They also point out that a high intake has been associated with an increased risk of developing prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer. And, of course, they recommend that you use low fat or nonfat dairy products, as the saturated fats in milk are not healthy (nor necessary to obtain all of milk’s benefits).
So, although no one is saying you should give up milk entirely, there are good reasons to seek alternative sources of calcium.
Of course, a small number of people need to avoid dairy products because they have lactose intolerance (lactose is the sugar naturally found in milk). Others prefer to follow a vegan diet and eat no animal products at all. And some just want more variety and would love to know about alternative sources of calcium.
Where to Find Alternative Sources of Calcium
Here’s a simple, easy-to-remember list of foods that contain calcium:
- Leafy green vegetables of the cabbage family (cruciferous vegetables). One hundred grams of cabbage, spinach, or broccoli, for example, contain more calcium than a glass of milk. If you eat them raw or slightly cooked, they retain all their calcium and also provide minerals like magnesium and iron, which are essential for healthy bones and help prevent anemia from iron deficiency. Among the vegetables with a high calcium content that you can add to your meals are arugula, dandelion greens, watercress and other wild edible leaves.
- From the sea to your table. Fish with soft bones —canned (tinned) sardines, for example—provide very high amounts of calcium. Salmon and other fatty fish are also high in calcium. Seaweed is an important source of minerals and calcium. We don’t use it much in the West, but it’s an important ingredient in sushi and in several Asian soups. It’s also delicious when used to complement and highlight the flavors in stews and salads.
- Rice milk and almond milk. These have the same amount of calcium as cow’s milk (120 mg of calcium in a 200 ml glass). Soy milk is also high in calcium but tends to produce intestinal gas. To avoid this, you can opt for tofu, a good cheese substitute that contains about 250 mg of calcium per serving.
- Sesame seeds and sunflower seeds. Just two tablespoons (5 g) can give you about 65 mg of calcium. And if you complement them with aromatic herbs like basil or rosemary, you can get up to 100 mg of calcium in a single dish.
- Nuts. A half-cup of almonds or hazelnuts, for example, will give you enough calcium to start the day. Figs, whether dried or fresh, are also an excellent source of this mineral.
- Oatmeal. Eating 35 mg of oatmeal provides 105 mg of calcium. You can combine it with dried fruits at breakfast in a porridge, or add oatmeal flakes to your meals to increase nutrients and consistency.
- Legumes. Beans, which are a staple for many from different parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, are an excellent source of calcium: a cup of boiled beans (with their broth) contains about 200 mg of calcium.
How Much Calcium Do I Need?
With this information, all that’s left to learn is how much calcium you need to stay healthy. This will depend on your age and physical condition. As a general rule, the National Academy of Sciences recommends the following.
- If you’re still in your teens, you should get 1,300 mg per day.
- If you’re between 19 and 50 years old, the recommended dose is 1,000 mg per day.
- Women over 50 and all adults over 70 should consume 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day.
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women need between 1,000 and 1,300 milligrams a day, depending on their age (teens need more than do older women).
Calcium and Vitamin D
Remember that vitamin D is just as important. It helps your body absorb calcium and is also deposited in the bones. Vitamin D is naturally produced in your body through exposure to sunlight. You also get it in different amounts from foods such as fatty fish (salmon, swordfish, tuna), sardines, egg yolks, and orange juice along with cereals that have been fortified with vitamin D.
It is also recommended that you lower your salt (sodium) intake, as your body will take calcium from your bones to compensate for high levels of sodium. Over time, this can weaken your bones and increase your risk of osteoporosis and fractures, especially in adult women.
Finally, avoid taking calcium supplements unless your doctor prescribes them. In general, it is better to get calcium from food, since supplements have been associated with health problems such as painful kidney stones and an increased risk of heart attacks.
So, with what you’ve learned about calcium, what new sources of this valuable mineral are you going to incorporate into your next dish? Bon appétit!
This article was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated.
Source: “No Sólo la Leche Contiene Calcio—También lo Encuentras Aquí…”
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