Calcium is a vital component of our diets: The mineral is crucial in helping to maintain a healthy bone structure and keep your muscles functioning properly. But have you ever wondered how to get calcium — and whether you're getting enough, or too much? It's recommended that an adult below the age of 50 should consume 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. Yet with many people choosing to avoid dairy (or being unable to have it in their diets for medical reasons), it’s important to know how else you can get calcium into your diet.
How to Get Calcium From Food
According to Frida Harju-Westman, nutritionist at the health app Lifesum, these are the best ways to get calcium into your diet, no matter if you can or can’t consume dairy.
Dairy foods high in calcium include:
Milk, a kitchen staple, is the most obvious source of calcium and the easiest to absorb. In addition to this, milk is a good source of magnesium and vitamin D, which combined, help your body absorb as much calcium as possible.
Cheese contains plenty of milk and therefore calcium. There are also over 300 varieties of cheese in the world, meaning you'll have plenty of variety to choose from and are practically guaranteed to find a favorite. Some cheeses are also made with very little to no lactose, meaning that even those allergic can still enjoy a slice and get their calcium intake.
Yogurt is rich in calcium which is important for healthy bones, and probiotic foods can help to calm down your stomach and kick-start your day. It counts for 40 percent of your recommended daily intake. It is also a good source of vitamins A and C, as well as iron. Stick to the natural yogurts and not the flavoured ones that are full of added sugar. For a dairy-free alternative, coconut yogurt is perfect for breakfast or an afternoon snack.
How to Get Calcium When Dairy-Free
How can you get calcium when you're lactose intolerant or on a dairy-free diet? Luckily, there are many dairy-free ways to get calcium from your food — and this list of popular dairy free foods with calcium probably includes some of your favorites that are already sitting in your fridge.
1. White beans
White beans are an especially good source of calcium, but they are also rich in protein, iron, and fiber. If you don’t fancy having white beans or want some variety, you can try winged beans or navy beans, both of which provide plenty of calcium.
Sardines are a great source of omega-3 fats, but did you know they are also a great source of calcium, with as much as 350 milligrams in one small can? Add a few of these salty fish to your salad for instant flavor, your calcium intake and an extra boost of vitamins B-12 and D.
3. Soy milk
Soy milk is a fantastic source of calcium for anyone who is lactose intolerant. You can add this to your morning cereal, have it with your coffee, or just drink two glasses a day. You can even add it to one of your favourite recipes, like banana bread. If that isn’t enough benefit to your body, soy milk is also a great source of protein.
4. Leafy greens
Leafy greens such as kale are extremely low in calories and have zero fat and high levels of fiber, helping to keep you fuller for longer. If you are on a vegan or calcium-free diet, eating kale is a great way to increase your calcium intake. "I recommend adding a side of kale to your evening meal or making your own homemade kale chips for a healthy snack," says Harju-Westman. Spinach is another good source for calcium. The easiest way to consume spinach is to add raw leaves to a salad or eat boiled spinach with scrambled eggs at breakfast.
Broccoli is a "super-veg" if ever there was one; it's jam-packed with essential nutrients including vitamins A-K and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, zinc, phosphorus and many others.
Oranges are not only a good source of vitamin C, but they're also high in calcium: One orange contains over 70 milligrams of the mineral. Oranges are a juicy, refreshing snack for the summer — and by eating just one orange, you will get 6 percent of the calcium you need for the day.
What happens to your body when you don’t have enough calcium?
If you've ever thought to yourself, "Am I getting enough calcium?" — or looked into how to get calcium even if you're not a fan of milk and cheese — you're probably concerned about damaging your body if you don't get enough. And it's true: A calcium deficiency can lead to problems over time. Here are some of the most common problems people experience.
1. Your gut health may suffer.
While giving up dairy may improve your digestion, it can have adverse effects upon the health of your gut. Your digestive tract contains many different types of bacteria, both good and bad. Dairy products such as natural Greek yogurt and kefir are packed with good bacteria and probiotics, which help to improve your gut health. If you go dairy-free, then it's important to replace your natural yogurt with a dairy-free option that still contains live active cultures, and you should perhaps consider taking probiotic tablets in order to help keep the gut stable.
2. Your immune system may take a hit.
When you stop eating dairy, you might find that your immune system becomes considerably weaker. This might be because you are lacking the important vitamin B12. B12 is commonly found in dairy products and assists in regulating the immune system and helping the body to fight bacteria. If you lack B12 you may find that you feel weaker and may pick up unwanted illnesses more easily, so be sure to combat this deficiency by eating foods that are fortified with this vitamin, or consult your doctor about whether to take a B12 supplement.
3. You may experience a withdrawal period.
If your body is used to consuming dairy, then you should expect that your body may experience withdrawal symptoms if you cut this food group out of your diet, which is natural as your body reacts to the dietary changes. You may find that you are more tired than normal and may even have trouble sleeping.
4. Your body may lack protein.
An important macronutrient you gain from dairy is protein, which is essential for building muscles and helping your organs and bones to correctly function. While other foods can provide you with the necessary intake of protein, you may find if you decide to go dairy-free, that you need to pay closer attention to this. Try to make an effort to eat more protein-rich foods such as quinoa and almonds.
What happens when you have too much calcium?
Calcium is important for a number of reasons: It helps us maintain strong bones and teeth, it keeps the muscles moving, and it helps blood circulation throughout the body. It's rare for people to receive too much calcium from food; however, if you take an excess of calcium supplements, you might experience constipation, your risk of developing kidney stones might also increase, and sometimes too much calcium can lead to hypercalcemia. (Hypercalcemia can also be the result of dehydration or too much vitamin D.)
Hypercalcemia occurs when the body has too much calcium in the blood stream. Usually, calcium is regulated by parathyroid hormone, which increases when calcium is low, and decreases when its high. When the body has too much calcium and the body fails to regulate it, it results in hypercalcemia. Symptoms of hypercalcemia include headaches, fatigue, thirst, excessive urination, constipation and abdominal pain. Note: Mild cases of hypercalcemia usually don’t require treatment, but if you are concerned or are experiencing any of these symptoms, it may be wise to check in with your healthcare provider.
This post was origianlly written by Frida Harju-Westman, a nutritionist at the health app Lifesum.