How To Get Calcium For Bones Naturallyby Corrie Ulbricht-Shatto, Carroll Reider
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Calcium may be one of the better-known minerals thanks to a few commercials back in the day asking us all if we’ve “Got milk?” Calcium is an essential nutrient, meaning the body requires this mineral to survive—but can’t make it without our help. So if we’re looking for how to get calcium into our diets, naturally—here are a few good places to start.
KNOWING YOUR CALCIUM NEEDS
Getting enough calcium from food starts with knowing your calcium needs. Calcium needs vary throughout our lives and from person to person depending on a range of factors. Here’s a quick overview of calcium requirements, or RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowances), broken down by age and gender.
How much calcium does a woman need1
- Calcium is critical at every stage in a women’s life. Calcium requirements are highest in teenage years and increase again as women enter menopause. Teenage girls ages 14-18 should consume 1,300 mg of calcium daily.
- Women ages 19–50 should consume 1,000 mg of calcium daily.
- Pregnant or lactating women ages 19+ should consume 1,000 mg of calcium daily.
- Women ages 51+ should consume 1,2000 mg of calcium daily.
How much calcium should a man take1
Men are better at meeting their RDA calcium needs through the diet than women, but calcium is just as important for them in supporting bone health. Here’s how much calcium men should be consuming daily:
- Teenage boys ages 14–18 should consume 1,300 mg of calcium daily
- Men ages 19–70 should consume 1,000 mg of calcium daily
- Men ages 70+ should consume 1,200 mg of calcium daily
It’s not always easy to meet the RDA for calcium and choosing the right foods can be a challenge. All of us can benefit from knowing the best food sources for calcium—especially those of us who are looking for how to get calcium naturally to ensure we get enough of this essential bone health support mineral every day.
HOW TO GET CALCIUM NATURALLY
People often think the best way to get calcium naturally is from dairy products, like milk or yogurt, and that’s true. If you are wondering how to get more calcium, dairy foods are a great place to start. Dairy products can pack a lot of calcium, so if you’re looking to increase your dietary calcium intake with dairy, here are some good dairy food sources to start with:2
- 1 cup of Yogurt contains 415 mg of calcium
- 1 cup of Milk (whole) contains 276 mg of calcium
- 1 oz Hard Cheese (cheddar, jack) contains 200 mg of calcium
- 1 oz Mozzarella contains 200 mg of calcium
That said, while dairy products are both good options for increasing your calcium intake, there are plenty of plant-based calcium options as well.
HOW TO GET CALCIUM WITHOUT DAIRY
If you have lactose intolerance, you’re on a vegan diet, or try to avoid dairy products for other reasons—it may seem like your best calcium food source options are off the table. But thankfully, that’s not the case at all!
In terms of dairy-free options, the list below is how to get calcium without dairy:3
- 1 cup of Collard Greens (cooked) contains 266 mg of calcium
- 1 cup of Kale (cooked) contains 179 mg of calcium
- 1 cup of Bok Choy (cooked) contains 160 mg of calcium
- 1 cup of Broccoli rabe (cooked) contains 100 mg of calcium
- 1 cup of Broccoli (cooked) contains 60 mg of calcium
- 2 figs (dried) contains 65 mg of calcium
- 1 cup soybeans (cooked) contains 175 mg of calcium
- 1 orange
- Fortified Foods
- 1 cup calcium fortified Orange Juice contains 300 mg of calcium
- 1 cup calcium fortified almond, soy, or rice milk contains 300 mg of calcium
- 1 cup tofu (calcium-prepared) contains 205 mg of calcium
HOW MUCH CALCIUM CAN YOU ABSORB
When the question is how to increase calcium intake—it’s important to know that increasing calcium intake isn’t just about consuming more calcium in general, it’s also about consuming more absorbable calcium. Calcium absorption is all about how much of the calcium found in our food or drinks actually gets absorbed by our bodies.
Calcium absorption can vary from one food to the next. For dairy products, calcium absorption is generally around 30%. 4 But calcium absorption from vegetables all depends on which vegetable you’re talking about, and can range from 5% to over 60%.4
For example, all of these veggies have higher calcium absorption than milk:5
- Brussel sprouts
- Bok choy
UNDERSTANDING CALCIUM ABSORPTION FOR VEGAN DIETS
Calcium absorption matters in general, but especially if you’re looking for how to increase your calcium intake without dairy products.
When it comes to choosing plant-based sources of calcium, it is a two-pronged approach: you want to not only select plant sources that are good sources of calcium, but you want to make sure that the calcium in that food is readily absorbable aka that it has a high “calcium bioavailability.”
Calcium bioavailability affects which types of plant-based calcium rich food are best to eat
If you’re on a vegan diet or just a veggie lover in general, you probably already know this. But some plants contain compounds, such as oxalates, that can prevent calcium from being absorbed into your body. Some plants have high levels of oxalates (block a lot of calcium from being absorbed), while other plants have low oxalates (allow more calcium to be absorbed).
For example, spinach is a calcium rich food.4 It contains more calcium than any other leafy green.7 But spinach also contains high levels of oxalate, making its bioavailability (or how much of that calcium actually gets absorbed and used by the body) pretty low.4,7
Kale is also a calcium rich food, but it has low levels of oxalate.4 So kale actually has a higher calcium absorption than milk, making it one of the best plant sources of calcium.4
Broccoli is also a calcium rich food with low oxalate levels, but it contains less calcium than milk.4 So, you’d need to eat a little over 2 cups of broccoli rabe to get the same amount of calcium absorbed from 1 cup of milk—however, broccoli is still an excellent plant-based way to help you meet your calcium needs.
Bok choy also contains less calcium per cup than milk, but it has a higher bioavailability.6,7 So, eating 1 cup of boy choy will provide your body with roughly the same amount of absorbable calcium as consuming 1 cup of milk.7
That’s a lot of high-science terms! But having even a small understanding of how calcium absorption works, can help all of us herbivores get a little more nutritional bang for our buck.
The main thing you need to remember is there are many calcium-rich, plant-based sources that can help you meet your calcium needs. Be it kale, broccoli, or calcium fortified orange juice, you’ve got lots of options to add to your shopping list!
WOMEN AREN’T MEETING THEIR CALCIUM NEEDS
Calcium intake is important for everyone, and especially for women. Calcium is needed by women during their younger years to build strong bones that set the foundation of bone health throughout their lives. But it’s also needed during childbearing years to support bone health for women and their babies—all the way through menopause and beyond, during which time estrogen decreases but the need for calcium increases.8
In a recent study by our own experts evaluating data from almost 7,000 women, we found many women of all ages weren’t consuming enough calcium from their diet alone:8
- 49% of women ages 15–30 don’t consume enough calcium
- 44% of women ages 31–44 don’t consume enough calcium
- 48% of women ages 40–50 don’t consume enough calcium
- 74% of women ages 51–65 don’t consume enough calcium
As a woman, making sure you have enough calcium intake (plus Vitamin D intake to help with calcium absorption), is a vital part of supporting bone health throughout every stage of life, and especially after menopause where a substantial number of women fall short of meeting their needs.8
Read more about the best sources of vitamin D
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INVESTING IN YOUR CALCIUM INTAKE
It’s easy to think that with such a well-known nutrient, we’re probably all meeting our daily needs from food alone. But unfortunately, as with many nutrients, that’s not always the case. Thankfully, there are plenty of delicious and nutritious ways to increase your calcium intake—with or without dairy products.
Start with getting a general idea of the RDAs for your gender and age. Turn to calcium rich foods that fit your diet and health goals. If you have lactose intolerance or you’re on a vegan diet, go beyond the food label—to get a general idea of which plant-based foods pack the most calcium. For women, it’s especially important to build up stores of this nutrient over time to help support long-term bone health. Calcium supplements can help close nutrient gaps that may occur in your diet as well.
However you choose to support your calcium needs, know that you’re helping give your body the support it needs—to support you (and your bone health) for years to come.
This information is only for educational purposes and is not medical advice or intended as a recommendation of any specific products. Consult your health care provider for more information.
- Institute of Medicine Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for calcium and vitamin D. Washington (DC): National Academies Press; 2011.
- S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central. 2019. Accessed on: June 14, 2021. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/
- National Osteoporosis Foundation. “A Guide to Calcium-Rich Foods.” 2021. Accessed on: June 3, 2021. https://www.nof.org/patients/treatment/calciumvitamin-d/a-guide-to-calcium-rich-foods/
- Heaney, R. P., et al. "Absorbability of calcium from brassica vegetables: broccoli, bok choy, and kale." Journal of Food Science. 58.6 (1993): 1378-1380.
- Yang J, et al. “Plant calcium content: ready to remodel.” Nutrients. 2012;4(8):1120-1136.
- Devarshi, Prasad P., et al. "Total estimated usual nutrient intake and nutrient status biomarkers in women of childbearing age and women of menopausal age." Am J Clin Nutr. 2021;113(4):1042-1052.
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