The average adult’s weight is made up of about 2% calcium. Most of this is found in the skeleton and teeth – the rest is stored in the tissues or blood. Calcium is vital for healthy teeth and bones. It also plays a crucial role in other systems of the body, such as the health and functioning of nerves and muscle tissue.
Good sources of calcium include dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese, and calcium-fortified products, such as some plant-based milks (for example, soy milk and rice milk) and breakfast cereals.
People at different life stages need different amounts of calcium – young children, teenagers and older women all have greater than average requirements.
According to the most recent National Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey of 2011-12:
Over half of all Australians aged 2 years and over consume inadequate levels of calcium from food sources.
Females are less likely to have adequate intakes of calcium than males.
73% of females consume less calcium than recommended.
51% of males consume less calcium than recommended.
It is much better to get calcium from foods than from calcium supplements. Be guided by your doctor about whether you need additional supplements. Too much calcium from supplements may cause other health problems.
Role of calcium in the body
Calcium plays a role in:
strengthening bones and teeth
regulating muscle functioning, such as contraction and relaxation
regulating heart functioning
transmission of nervous system messages
Calcium and dairy food
Australians receive most of their calcium from dairy foods. If milk and milk-based foods are removed from the diet, this can lead to an inadequate intake of calcium. This is of particular concern for children and adolescents, who have high calcium needs.
Calcium deficiency may lead to disorders like osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become fragile and brittle later in life. Osteoporosis affects both men and women.
Too little calcium can weaken bones
If not enough calcium is circulating in your blood, your body will use hormones to reduce the amount of calcium your kidneys excrete in your urine. If not enough calcium is absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract, calcium will be taken from the bones.
If your dietary intake of calcium is constantly low, your body will eventually remove so much calcium from the skeleton that your bones will become weak and brittle.
Standard recommendations may be too high, and calcium supplements could harm more than help.
How much calcium per day is recommended? Like many women, you may have memorized the minimum daily calcium requirement—1,000 milligrams (mg) a day for women ages 50 and younger and 1,200 mg for women over 50—and followed it faithfully in an effort to preserve your bones. But outside the United States, the recommended calcium intake is much lower. The World Health Organization recommends 500 mg of calcium a day and the United Kingdom sets the goal at 700 mg..
Why is 1,200 mg of calcium per day recommended?
Adequate calcium is necessary for good health, and not just because it’s a major component of our bones. It also plays a vital role in keeping our organs and skeletal muscles working properly. The body gets the calcium it needs for basic functions by releasing the calcium stored in our bones into the blood through bone remodeling—the process by which bone is constantly broken down and rebuilt.
Because bone density drops when bone breakdown outpaces bone formation, scientists reasoned that maintaining an adequate level of calcium in the blood could keep the body from drawing it out of the bones. In the late 1970s, a couple of brief studies indicated that consuming 1,200 mg of calcium a day could preserve a postmenopausal woman’s calcium balance.
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Based on those studies, in 1997 an Institute of Medicine panel raised the recommendation for calcium intake from 800 mg to 1,200 mg a day for women over 50. However, the recommendation was based on calcium balance studies that lasted just a few weeks. In fact, calcium balance should be determined over a much longer time period. Moreover, there isn’t sufficient evidence that consuming that much calcium actually prevents fractures. Nonetheless, the recommendation has been carried forward since then.
The truth about how much calcium you need
In the past two decades, several clinical trials involving thousands of postmenopausal women have sought to determine how calcium intake affects the risk of hip fractures. In each study, women were randomly assigned to one of two groups—one to receive calcium and supplements of vitamin D (to aid calcium absorption) and the other to get placebo pills. After several years, the researchers looked at the number of hip fractures in each group. Here’s what they found:
Calcium and vitamin D supplements don’t prevent fractures. That finding came from two British studies reported in 2005. It was substantiated by a 2006 report from the Women’s Health Initiative, which showed that 18,000 postmenopausal women who took a supplement containing 1,000 mg of calcium and 400 international units (IU) of vitamin D were no less likely to break their hips than an equal number who took a placebo pill, although the density of their hip bones increased slightly. Even that small change might have been due to the vitamin D rather than the calcium.
High calcium intake—from either food or pills—doesn’t reduce hip fracture risk. This was the conclusion of a 2007 report by Swiss and American scientists who conducted an analysis of more than a dozen studies of calcium.
Calcium-Rich Foods (Many Are Nondairy)
Calcium is not only the most abundant mineral in the body but also very important for your health.
In fact, it makes up much of your bones and teeth and plays a role in heart health, muscle function, and nerve signaling (1Trusted Source).
For most adults, it’s recommended to consume at least 1,000 mg of calcium per day, though certain groups require a higher amount, including adolescents, postmenopausal women, and older adults (2Trusted Source).
Although dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are especially high in calcium, many dairy-free sources of calcium are available.
Here are 15 foods that are rich in calcium, many of which are nondairy.
Seeds are tiny nutritional powerhouses, and many are high in calcium, including poppy, sesame, celery, and chia seeds.
For instance, 1 tablespoon (9 grams) of poppy seeds packs 127 mg of calcium, or 10% of the recommended Daily Value (DV).
Seeds also deliver protein and healthy fats. For example, chia seeds are rich in plant-based omega-3 fatty acids .
Sesame seeds contain 7% of the DV for calcium in 1 tablespoon (9 grams), plus other minerals, including copper, iron, and manganese .
SUMMARYMany seeds are good sources of calcium and also deliver other important nutrients, such as protein and healthy fats. One tablespoon (9 grams) of poppy seeds contains 10% of the DV for calcium, while a serving of sesame seeds has 7% of the DV.
Most cheeses are excellent sources of calcium. Parmesan cheese has the most, with 242 mg — or 19% of the DV — per ounce (28 grams).
Softer cheeses tend to have less. For instance, 1 ounce (28 grams) of Brie only delivers 52 mg, or 4% of the DV.
As a bonus, your body absorbs the calcium in dairy products more easily than that from plant sources (8Trusted Source).
Cheese also delivers protein. Cottage cheese has 23 grams of protein per cup (9Trusted Source).
What’s more, aged, hard cheeses are naturally low in lactose, making them easier to digest for people with lactose intolerance (10Trusted Source).
Dairy may have additional health benefits. For example, one review of 31 studies suggests that increased dairy intake may be associated with a lower risk of heart disease (11Trusted Source).
Another review found that the regular consumption of milk and yogurt was linked to a lower risk of metabolic syndrome, a condition that raises your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes (12Trusted Source).
However, keep in mind that full fat cheese can be high in saturated fat and calories. Certain cheeses also contain a lot of sodium, which some people may need to limit.
SUMMARYParmesan cheese packs 19% of the DV for calcium, while other types like Brie deliver around 4%. Despite being high in saturated fat and calories, eating dairy may lower your risk of heart disease.
Yogurt is an excellent source of calcium.
Many types of yogurt are also rich in probiotics, a type of beneficial bacteria that can promote immune function, improve heart health, and enhance nutrient absorption (13Trusted Source).
One cup (245 grams) of plain yogurt contains 23% of the DV for calcium, as well as a hearty dose of phosphorus, potassium, and vitamins B2 and B12 (14Trusted Source).
Low fat yogurt may be even higher in calcium, with 34% of the DV in 1 cup (245 grams) (15Trusted Source).
On the other hand, while Greek yogurt is a great way to get extra protein in your diet, it delivers less calcium than regular yogurt (16Trusted Source).
In addition to providing a wide array of nutrients, some research also shows that regular consumption of yogurt may be linked to a lower risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes (17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).
SUMMARYYogurt is one of the best sources of calcium, providing up to 34% of the DV in 1 cup (245 grams). It’s also a good source of protein and other nutrients.
4. Sardines and canned salmon
Sardines and canned salmon are loaded with calcium, thanks to their edible bones.
A 3.75-ounce (92-gram) can of sardines packs 27% of the DV, and 3 ounces (85 grams) of canned salmon with bones has 19%.
These oily fish also provide high quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which can support the health of your heart, brain, and skin.
While seafood may contain mercury, smaller fish such as sardines have low levels. In addition, both sardines and salmon have high levels of selenium, a mineral that can prevent and reverse mercury toxicity.
SUMMARYSardines and canned salmon are exceptionally nutritious choices. A can of sardines gives you 27% of the DV for calcium, while 3 ounces (85 grams) of canned salmon packs 19%.
5. Beans and lentils
Beans and lentils are high in fiber, protein, and micronutrients, including iron, zinc, folate, magnesium, and potassium.
Some varieties also have decent amounts of calcium, including winged beans, which supply 244 mg, or 19% of the DV, in a single cooked cup (172 grams).
White beans are also a good source, with 1 cup (179 grams) of cooked white beans providing 12% of the DV. Other varieties of beans and lentils have less, ranging from around 3-4% of the DV per cup (175 grams).
Interestingly, beans are credited with many of the health benefits associated with plant-based diets. In fact, research suggests that beans may help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes (28Trusted Source).
SUMMARYBeans are highly nutritious. One cup (172 grams) of cooked wing beans delivers 19% of the DV for calcium, while other varieties provide around 3–12% for the same serving size.
Of all nuts, almonds are among the highest in calcium. Just 1 ounce (28 grams) of almonds, or about 23 nuts, delivers 6% of the DV (29Trusted Source).
Almonds also provide 3.5 grams of fiber per ounce (28 grams), as well as healthy fats and protein. In addition, they’re an excellent source of magnesium, manganese, and vitamin E.
Eating nuts may also help lower blood pressure, body fat, and multiple other risk factors for metabolic disease (30Trusted Source).
SUMMARYAlmonds are high in nutrients like healthy fats, protein, and magnesium. One ounce (28 grams) of almonds, or 23 nuts, delivers 6% of the DV for calcium.
7. Whey protein
Whey is a type of protein found in milk that has been well studied for its potential health benefits (31Trusted Source).
It’s also an excellent protein source and full of rapidly digested amino acids, which help promote muscle growth and recovery (32Trusted Source).
Interestingly, some studies have even linked whey-rich diets to increased weight loss and improved blood sugar management (33Trusted Source).
Whey is also exceptionally rich in calcium — a 1.2-ounce (33-gram) scoop of whey protein powder isolate contains approximately 160 mg, or 12% of the DV .
Which protein powder is best?
Healthline reviewed the best protein powders and gave our picks for the best of each — including calcium-rich whey protein.
SUMMARYWhey protein is an exceptionally healthy protein source and contains approximately 12% of the DV for calcium in each 1.2-ounce (33-gram) scoop.
8. Leafy greens
Leafy green vegetables are incredibly healthy, and many of them are high in calcium, including collard greens, spinach, and kale.
For instance, 1 cup (190 grams) of cooked collard greens has 268 mg of calcium, or about 21% of the amount that you need in a day
Note that some varieties, such as spinach, are high in oxalates, which are naturally occurring compounds that bind to calcium and impair its absorption.
Therefore, although spinach is rich in calcium, it’s not absorbed as well as other calcium-rich greens that are low in oxalates, such as kale and collard greens.
SUMMARYSome leafy greens are rich in calcium, including collard greens, which contain 21% of the DV in each cooked cup (190 grams). However, certain leafy greens contain oxalates, which can decrease the absorption of calcium.
Rhubarb is rich in fiber, vitamin K, calcium, and smaller amounts of other vitamins and minerals.
It also contains prebiotic fiber, a type of fiber that can promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut .
Like spinach, rhubarb is high in oxalates, so much of the calcium is not absorbed. In fact, one study found that your body can only absorb around 5% of the calcium found in rhubarb.
On the other hand, even if you’re only absorbing a small amount, rhubarb is still a source of calcium, with 105 mg of calcium per cup (122 grams) of raw rhubarb, or about 8% of the DV.
SUMMARYRhubarb is high in fiber, vitamin K, and other nutrients. It also contains calcium, although only a small amount is absorbed by the body.
10. Fortified foods
Fortified foods like cereals can make it easier to meet your daily calcium needs.
In fact, some types of cereal can deliver up to 1,000 mg (100% of the DV) per serving — and that’s before adding milk .
However, keep in mind that your body can’t absorb all that calcium at once, and it’s best to spread your intake throughout the day.
Flour and cornmeal may also be fortified with calcium. This is why some breads, tortillas, and crackers contain high amounts.
SUMMARYGrain-based foods are often fortified with calcium, including some breakfast cereals, tortillas, breads, and crackers.