Calcium 101

Think calcium only comes from diary? Think again! Calcium comes from several plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Foods can be fortified with calcium too. Our bodies need calcium to maintain bone health and to keep our heart, muscles, and nerves functioning properly.

Calcium is a unique mineral. It is not produced in our body so we need to get it from food. In order for calcium to be absorbed, it needs its partner, vitamin D.  Finding plant-based vitamin D foods can be challenging, but good sources include some types of mushrooms and fortified foods such as soy or almond milk, soy yogurt, and ready-to-eat cereals. Check out the labels next time you are shopping, and don’t forget about the sun! Our bodies absorb and make vitamin D from the sun; just 5 to 30 minutes of sun exposure (between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. without sunscreen ) twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back is enough to increase vitamin D levels in our body. 

What else helps calcium absorption?  Vitamin C!  Eating foods rich in vitamin C such as strawberries, yellow peppers, kale, citrus fruits, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kiwi, parsley, and thyme will help you absorb calcium in addition to vitamin D.

The recommended daily allowance for calcium is between 1,000 – 1,200 mg for adults; however, most of us can’t look at a bunch of kale and know if it’s 1 mg or 6,000 mg of calcium, right?! The chart below can help you identify how your favorite plant-based foods measure up!

Foods with Calcium

Serving Size

Estimated calcium in milligrams (mg)

Blackstrap molasses

2 Tbsp.

400

Commercial soy yogurt, plain

¾ cup

300

Collard greens, cooked/frozen

1 cup

268-360

Turnip greens, cooked

1 cup

197

Tempeh

1 cup

184

Soybeans, cooked

1 cup

175

Mustard greens, cooked

1 cup

165

Bok choy, cooked

1 cup

158

Tahini

2 Tbsp.

128

Navy beans, cooked

1 cup

126

Okra, cooked

1 cup

126

Almond butter

2 Tbsp.

111

Almonds, whole

¼ cup

94

Broccoli, cooked or fresh

1 cup

60

Broccoli rabe

1 cup

200

Soy beans, green, boiled

1 cup

175

Bok choy, cooked, boiled

1 cup

160

Figs, dried

2 figs

65

Oranges

1 whole

55

 (4)

Calcium-fortified Foods

Serving Size

Estimated calcium in milligrams (mg)

Almond milk, rice milk or soy

milk

1 cup

300

Tofu

½ cup

205

Cereal

1 cup

100-1,000

All of these nutrient-rich plant foods listed above have other benefits too. They include protein, healthy fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. They are also loaded with fiber which can aid in digestion and bowel health, improve blood sugar levels, and lower cholesterol levels.

How about calcium or vitamin D supplements? It is best to get our vitamins and minerals from fresh, whole food as they are more “bioavailable” once consumed. This means how much of the nutrient is absorbed and used by the body. When we take these in supplement form, they are less bioavailable because of the processing it goes through to become a powder or pill. However, if your health care team has prescribed a calcium or vitamin D supplement, then by all means you should continue to take it. If you’re thinking about trying supplementation, check with your health care team to ensure the supplements do not interact with any prescribed medications or treatments.

Michele DiCristofaro, MS, RD, LDN

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