Everyone thinks we have to get our calcium from milk and milk products. That’s been beat into our heads, but I’m one of a growing number of physicians who believe that we’re much better off getting our calcium from other sources.
For a good, scientifically based summary of why milk and cheese aren’t such good calcium options, read what the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Harvard School of Public Health have to say.
Dairy doesn’t hold a monopoly on calcium. It’s only the industry’s marketing tactics that make us think so. Plants contain calcium, particularly beans and other legumes as well as green leafy vegetables. High levels of vitamin K in the leafy greens work synergistically with calcium to increase bone strength.
The Nurses’ Health Study and others have shown us that women getting sufficient vitamin K can reduce their risk of hip fracture by a almost a third. In fact, nurses eating at least one serving of lettuce or other green, leafy vegetable every day cut their risk of breaking a hip in half.
Great leafy green sources of calcium include kale, collard greens, dandelion greens, mustard greens, and turnip greens. If you’re tired of boiling and eating these things plain, try a blended shake of kale mixed with pears, oranges and bananas. Or you can mix collards with apples or any other fruit or herb. Dandelion greens taste good mixed with a little mint and melon. Experimentation with these blended creations can be a lot of fun.
Calcium is also found in spinach and Swiss chard, but they contain oxalic acid that can combine with calcium to form calcium oxalate. Binding to oxalate decreases the amount of calcium available to be used by the body.
That doesn’t mean spinach and Swiss chard don’t provide any calcium at all, it’s just that it’s not as much as one would imagine when looking at their total calcium content.Iceberg lettuce has calcium, too, just not as much as darker leafy greens. A whole head of iceberg lettuce contains about a 100 mg of calcium compared to the same amount in only a cup of boiled fresh kale.
Here’s a list of whole natural foods that contain calcium.
Keep in mind it’s just a partial list.
|Collard greens, 1 cup cooked||266 mg|
|Soybeans, 1 cup green lightly boiled as edamame||261 mg|
|Pak-choi cabbage, 1 cup cooked||158 mg|
|Dandelion greens, 1 cup cooked from fresh||147 mg|
|White beans, 1 cup cooked||120 mg|
|Mustard greens, 1 cup cooked from fresh||104 mg|
|Iceberg lettuce, 1 head, raw||97 mg|
|Kale, 1 cup cooked from fresh||94 mg|
|Peas, 1 cup cooked from frozen||94 mg|
|Tomato paste, canned, 1 cup||94 mg|
|Chickpeas, 1 cup cooked||80 mg|
|Pinto beans, 1 cup cooked||79 mg|
|Okra, 1 cup cooked||77 mg|
|Raisins, 1 cup||73 mg|
|Almonds, 24 nuts||70 mg|
|Dates, 1 cup||69 mg|
|Broccoli, 1 cup cooked,||61 mg|
|Sweet potato baked in the skin||55 mg|
|Green beens, 1 cup cooked||55 mg|
|Orange, one medium||52 mg|
|Kidney beans, 1 cup cooked||50 mg|
|Squash, 1 cup cooked||49 mg|
|Cucumber with peel, one large||48 mg|
|Celery, 1 cup, raw||48 mg|
|Cabbage, 1 cup cooked||47 mg|
|Black beans, 1 cup cooked||46 mg|
|Onions, 1 cup cooked||46 mg|
So you can see that plenty of foods have calcium, and a balanced nutritious diet of a variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes and nuts can provide all that we need without any dairy at all.
As I’ve noted before, I’m not vegan, and I eat a little dairy every once in awhile. That’s in keeping with the advice of the Yoga texts. I try to keep it to a minimum though, and I don’t let myself feel corralled into drinking milk or eating lots of cheese or yogurt simply to get more calcium.
If you feel your diet isn’t supplying enough calcium from whole, natural foods, there are fortified products on the market like orange juice, breakfast cereals, and soy milk.
And don’t forget how important it is to have vitamin D in your system so the body can absorb and use calcium. Ten to twenty minutes a day in the sun with much of the body exposed is all you need. Of course, how much time is needed depends on the time of day (around noon maximizes vitamin D production because of the angle of the sun), the season of the year, the latitude of your home, your age, and the darkness of your skin.
Skin cancer is still an issue with overdoing sun exposure, so be sure to find the balance that is right for you. No sun isn’t good. Neither is too much. Never let yourself burn. It’s burning that is most associated with fatal skin cancers.
Feskanich D, Weber P, Willett WC, Rockett H, Booth SL, Colditz GA. Vitamin K intake and hip fractures in women: a prospective study. Am J Clin Nutr.1999; 69:74–79.
Booth SL, Tucker KL, Chen H, et al. Dietary vitamin K intakes are associated with hip fracture but not with bone mineral density in elderly men and women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000; 71:1201–08.
Booth SL, Broe KE, Gagnon DR, et al. Vitamin K intake and bone mineral density in women and men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003; 77(2):512-16.