Milk is a good source of calcium: True or false? As trivia questions go, that one's a no-brainer. But what if you're on a dairy-free diet? Or just don't like milk? Can you still get your daily allotment of calcium?
Calcium comes in many foods that don't involve milk, cheese and yogurt — although those are all first-rate sources of calcium. But before we dive into calcium-rich alternatives, here's a quick reminder about why maintaining healthy calcium levels is so essential.
- Bone health. 99 percent of your body's calcium is stored in your bones and teeth. Until you reach older adulthood, your body is constantly rebuilding and strengthening your bones, requiring a regular intake of calcium.
- Heart function. Calcium literally keeps your heart muscle pumping.
- Nerve transmission. Calcium fires cell signals that direct your muscles to contract and get you moving.
Keeping all these systems in peak condition requires a diet rich in calcium, which is the most abundant mineral in your body. Just how much you need depends on your age. Women under 50 need 1,000 milligrams (mg) daily; men under 71 also require 1,000 mg daily. Women older than 50 (and men older than 71) need more: Up your intake to 1,200 mg every day.
Older adults need more calcium to protect their bone health and stave off osteoporosis, a common bone disease that can develop as you age. Osteoporosis can lead to broken bones, limited mobility and costly surgeries.
Pro tip: If the label states that the product provides, say, 30 percent of your daily calcium requirement, you can add a zero to find out just how much that is in milligrams — in this case, you'd be getting 300 mg.
If you're avoiding dairy, make a habit of incorporating some of these other calcium-rich foods in your diet:
- Canned sardines. Check the label to be sure they're canned in oil, bones included.
- Fortified soy, almond and rice milk.
- Fortified orange juice. Check the label; not all orange juice is fortified with calcium.
- Tofu made with calcium sulfate.
- Canned pink salmon with bones.
- Fortified cereals and English muffins. Check the label; many popular ready-to-eat breakfast cereals and English muffins come with a healthy dose of added calcium.
- Greens. Turnip and collard greens and kale all pack a calcium-rich punch.
- Beans. Garbanzo, kidney, navy and even canned baked beans provide calcium; boiled green soybeans are another good option.
- Canned shrimp.
- Veggies like cooked broccoli, Chinese cabbage, edamame and acorn squash.
- Papaya, dried figs and oranges.
Keep in mind that some of us are more at risk for calcium deficiency than others. Research has shown that adolescent girls — especially athletes — as well as women, individuals who are lactose intolerant or have a dairy allergy, and the elderly should monitor their calcium levels more closely.
While bone health takes center stage in any discussion about calcium, almost every cell in your body needs calcium to thrive. So no excuses if you don't do dairy: There are plenty of other options out there that'll help keep your calcium levels topped off.