Nutrient Spotlight on Calcium
This post is part of the series Nutrient Spotlight... meant to explore the what, why, where, and how of important dietary players, with some culinary inspiration to get you started.
What is the most plentiful mineral in the human body? You guessed it – calcium.
What is it? // Why do I need it?
Predominantly found in the skeletal network, calcium is vital to strong bones and healthy teeth, essential in the prevention of osteoporosis, degenerative bone diseases, fractures, and age-related bone loss. It is also part of the framework that makes up our tissues, nerve cells, blood and other fluids wherein it helps promote a strong heart and circulatory system, proper muscle and nerve function, blood clotting, and the release of certain hormones.
During pregnancy, adequate maternal stores of calcium promote healthy development of fetal bones, muscles, teeth and heart. Deficiency may result in decreased maternal bone mass, tooth damage and increased osteoporosis risk later in life as the woman’s body will pull from her stores to strengthen those of the baby. Adequate maternal calcium is still important after delivery to enrich the baby through breastmilk and prevent depletion of maternal bone stores.
Where can I find it?
Calcium is not made in the body, therefore we must acquire it from what we eat and drink. Most of us immediately think dairy, and for good reason. The highest calcium-per-serving options in this group are plain yogurt [~30-45% of the daily value (DV)], cow’s milk (~25 to 40%), Icelandic skyr (~15-25%), fermented kefir (~20%), cottage cheese (~10-12%), and other cheeses (~10-35%) — Swiss, Parmesan, mozzarella + ricotta are standouts.
While dairy products are excellent sources of calcium, there are many non-dairy alternatives to meet your needs. Take dark leafy greens:* Cooked collards provide almost 30% of your DV in 1 cup, and that amount of kale and broccoli provide roughly 10% and 4%, respectively. Calcium is also found naturally in asparagus, edamame and okra, oranges and dried figs, almonds and brazil nuts, quinoa and oatmeal, white/navy beans and black-eyed peas, blackstrap molasses. Sesame and chia seeds contain nearly 90 mg each per 1 Tbsp, about 9% of the daily recommendation.
High amounts of calcium are present in several types of seafood, notably fresh or canned salmon, sardines, mackerel, rainbow trout, herring and perch. Bonus: These fish are also good sources of vitamin D, which is necessary for the body to properly absorb calcium. (Turn to eggs, mushrooms grown under UV light, fortified foods like milk, 100% orange juice and breads, and sunlight to boost intake and production of vitamin D.)
Other foods offering calcium include tofu processed with calcium sulfate, and some enriched cereals, breads and other grains. Calcium-fortified 100% orange juices and plant milks made from soy, almonds, rice and hemp seed are additional sources, but remember to always shake the containers before use, as calcium settles at the bottom.
There are a few additional things you can do to further maximize absorption + utilization of calcium and promote healthy bones + teeth: Aim for adequate vitamin C, vitamin K, and potassium (i.e., eat colorful fruit + veg), be physically active regularly (especially weight-bearing + strengthening exercises), avoid tobacco products, and limit alcohol to recommended amounts.
(Scroll down for calcium-rich HGN recipe links.)
How much do I need?
In the absence of adequate dietary calcium, the body is prompted to pull from stores in our bones. Refer to the guidelines below to help you meet your daily needs. (Recommendations for infants, children and teens here.)
All Adults (19-50): 1,000 mg per day
Adult Men (51-70): 1,000 mg per day
Adult Women (51-70): 1,200 mg per day
All Adults (71+): 1,200 mg per day
Pregnant/Breastfeeding Adult Women: 1,000 mg per day**
Consuming enough calcium can be difficult for some. A daily supplement*** may be required to meet the recommended intake if you are:
+ vegan OR ovo-vegetarian (i.e., eggs but no dairy);
+ lactose-intolerant OR have a digestive condition such as Celiac disease or Crohn’s disease;
+ a post-menopausal female OR a woman of childbearing age with amenorrhea (no menstrual periods) — both of whom experience decreased calcium absorption + increased risk of bone loss and slowed formation of new bone;
+ an athlete, especially if female and/or a teen or young adult — due to increased nutrient needs + exercise-related electrolyte losses.
The tolerable upper intake level (UL) for adults is currently set at 2,000 mg per day for adults 19-50 years old, and 2,500 mg per day after 50 years of age.
CALCIUM-RICH HGN RECIPES
+ Smoky Braised Collard Greens (GF + Vg + V)
+ Brazil Nut Milk (GF + Vg + V)
+ Creamy Homemade Yogurt (GF + Vg)
+ Fresh Mozzarella Cheese (GF + Vg + V)
+ Celeste Fig and Chia Jam (GF + Vg + V)
+ Golden (Milk) Bites (GF + Vg + V)
+ Green Quinoa Salad with Lemon and Pistachios (GF + Vg + V)
+ Chana dal with Spinach, Cucumber and Pomegranate Arils (GF + Vg + V)
+ Shortcut Ravioli with Peas, Spinach, Mint and Ricotta + Brown Butter Spinach Pan Sauce (Vg)
+ Fruited Yogurt Oat Mini Muffins (Vg)
+ Savory Strawberry Pizza with Spinach, Chives, Chillies + Halloumi (Vg)
+ Calzones with Cretan Braised Greens + White Cheddar (Vg)
+ Smoked Salmon Kedgeree with Spinach, Green Peas, Leek and Basmati Rice (GF)
+ Salmon and Veg en Papillote (GF)
+ Winter Salad with Yellow Beet, Blood Orange, Fennel and Chèvre (GF + Vg)
+ Hiyayakko (Japanese Cold Tofu) (GF + Vg + V)
Tell me… How do you get your calcium? I’m from the Dairy State, so…
*Compounds found naturally in some leafy green veg called oxalates, as well as certain fibers, such as wheat bran, inhibit calcium absorption. Beet greens, Swiss chard, rhubarb, and spinach contain abundant calcium, but have a high oxalate content, meaning limited calcium absorption. On the other hand, broccoli, cabbages, collards, kale and mustard greens have a low oxalate content, and are therefore better choices for those who are rely on plant-based sources of calcium.
**Many prenatal multivitamins contain very little calcium, so be sure to include calcium-rich food sources in your daily diet.
***Prior to beginning any new vitamin or mineral supplement regime, always consult first with your physician to check blood levels and discuss potential interactions, as well as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist to check your current diet to further assess needs.
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