When people think of calcium, bone health is usually the first thing that comes to mind, but calcium’s benefits go far beyond helping to build and maintain a strong skeletal structure. Calcium is also needed to regulate heart rhythms, aid in muscle function, regulate blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and is involved in numerous nerve signaling functions, and much more.
Research is now even suggesting that calcium, in combination with vitamin D, may have the ability to help protect against cancer, diabetes and heart disease too—three of the biggest threats to American’s health and the health of many other nations too.
Calcium is the most present mineral in the body, stored in the body mostly in the bones and teeth. About 99% of our calcium is found in bones and the teeth, mostly in the form of calcium deposits, with the other remaining 1% being stored throughout bodily tissue. (1)
We all require a relatively high amount of calcium in comparison to many other trace minerals—in fact we are thought to have enough calcium in our body to constitute 2% of our total body weight. Calcium is also needed to control levels of magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium in the blood, since these minerals all work together to balance one another. This is why it is so important to avoid calcium deficiency and strive to consume calcium rich foods on a regular basis.
Aside from dairy products like milk, calcium can be found in certain plant foods as well. Leafy green vegetables, like collard greens and kale, are great sources of calcium, as are other plant foods like okra and a variety of beans.
NOTE: It is important to note that magnesium is key to calcium absorption. These two work in a very special relationship with each other in the body. Many times, if you have a calcium deficiency or imbalance, then you also may have a magnesium deficiency — and often a magnesium deficiency can be a precursor to later calcium issues, because of this affect on calcium uptake! This relationship is why calcium food sources are the most effective when eaten with magnesium-rich foods.
Calcium Deficiency: Risks & Symptoms
Each day, we lose calcium through our skin, nails, hair, sweat, urine and stool. We also cannot make calcium ourselves within our own body, so ideally every day we must replenish our body’s supply.
Experts believe that most adults in the U.S, and many other developed nations too, do not get enough calcium on a daily basis. This is true despite the fact that most of these populations, including Americans and Europeans, consume plenty of dairy products.
It’s believed this discrepancy may be happening because calcium is not being absorbed properly due to low levels of Vitamin D and other essential nutrients. Another theory is that the soil used to grow conventional crops which are normally high in calcium has become depleted of minerals to a certain extent — therefore calcium levels in foods are declining.
The people at highest risk for experiencing a calcium deficiency are children, adolescent girls, and postmenopausal women. (2) Since dairy products are one of the most common sources of calcium, people who are lactose intolerant or who do not eat dairy for ethical reasons (like vegans and some vegetarians) are also at an increased risk for having a calcium deficiency.
Other people who have digestive disorders that make it hard to break down and use calcium are also at a higher risk for calcium deficiency.
A calcium deficiency can result in symptoms and illnesses including:
- Brittle, weak bones
- Bone fractures
- Problems with proper blood clotting
- Weakness and fatigue
- Delays in children’s growth and development
- Heart problems involving blood pressure and heart rhythms
Part of the reason that low levels of calcium can cause a range of negative symptoms is that your body pulls calcium from “calcium reserves” that are stored within your bones when your diet does not include enough. It does this to maintain enough calcium in your blood, which is needed at all times and is crucial for ongoing blood vessel and muscle function.
When your body is forced to prioritize its use of available calcium, it uses it for nerve and muscle functions, like those that control your heart beat, rather than for supporting your bones. So, ideally you want to continue to incorporate these calcium sources to keep your calcium at optimum levels and avoid calcium deficiency.
13 Best Food Sources of Calcium
Here are 13 ways to add more calcium to your diet naturally (the following percentages are based on the recommended daily allowance of 1000 mg for adult men and women under the age of 51):
1. Whey Protein
3 scoops (86 grams): 600 mg (60%) (5)
1 can (3.75 oz): 351 mg (35%) (6)
3. Kefir (Goat Milk)
1 cup: 327 mg (32.7%) (7)
4. Raw Milk
1 cup: 300 mg (30%) (8)
5. White Beans
½ cup uncooked/about 1 cup cooked: 242 mg (24%) (9)
6. Raw Milk Cheese
1 ounce (depending on style of cheese): about 200mg (20%) (10)
7. Kidney Beans
½ cup uncooked/about 1 cup cooked: 180 mg (18%) (11)
8. Sesame Seeds
2 tbsp: 176 mg (17.6%) (12)
1 cup cooked: 164 mg (16.4%) (13)
10. Collard Greens
½ cup cooked: 134 mg (13.4%) (14)
¼ cup: 114 mg (11.4%) (15)
¼ cup: 95 mg (9.5%) (16)
13. Goat Cheese
1 oz: 84 mg (8.4%) (17)
14. Mustard Greens
½ cup cooked: 82 mg (8%) (18)
Top Health Benefits of Calcium
1. Supports Bone Health
Calcium is involved in the growth and maintenance of bones. Calcium, together with other essential minerals like Vitamin K and Vitamin D, is needed to maintain bone mineral density and to prevent weak, brittle bones and fractures. It helps form a part of hydroxyapatite, the mineral complex that makes your bones and teeth hard and maintains bone density and helps bones heal.
Without enough calcium present in the body, bones are susceptible to becoming post and pliable, and therefore they’d be more prone to fractures and breaks.
For bone loss prevention, vitamin D, vitamin K, and protein are just as important as calcium is, therefore the three of these factors together can result in the best chances of protecting bones into old age. (21, 22)
That being said, consuming high levels of calcium alone, or taking calcium supplements, does not protect against bone problems like osteoporosis and fractures. In fact it may even slightly increase the risk for bone fractures. Calcium needs to be obtained from natural food sources to have the most benefits and because of this, the use of calcium supplements for preventing bone related diseases is now being rethought.
2. May Help Prevent Osteoporosis
Calcium aids in bone strength as the bones build up calcium stores over time. Calcium supplementation has been one of the standard treatment methods used to prevent and decreases cases of osteoporosis for decades.
Osteoporosis is a disease most common in women (especially postmenopausal women) that results in weak, fragile bones over time due to bone deterioration and loss of bone mineral and mass; what really occurs when someone has osteoporosis is that their bones become porous (hence the name).
Although recently there are many studies pointing to the fact that calcium alone may not directly positively influence osteoporosis risk, eating foods with plenty of calcium along with protein, vitamin K, and vitamin D can help reduce your risk for bone related problems.
3. Helps Lower High Blood Pressure
Calcium is involved in regulating heart functions because of its role in dilating blood vessels and sending chemical nerve signals from the brain to the heart. This is important for regulating heart rhythms, blood pressure, and circulation.
Supplemental dietary calcium has been shown to help lower levels of high blood pressure, whereas restricted calcium diets tend to elevate blood pressure. (24) In studies, patients have experienced a statistically significant decrease of systolic high blood pressure with calcium supplementation. (25)
It’s believed that calcium may alter blood pressure by changing the metabolism of other electrolytes and by playing a part in blood vessel activity and muscle strength. (26) However, some studies show that the effect is too small to support the use of calcium supplementation for preventing or treating hypertension at this time.
4. Defends Against Cancer
According to studies, there is a highly significant association between calcium and vitamin D intake and a lowered risk of death from at least fifteen types of cancers. (27) Of these, colon, rectal, breast, gastric, endometrial, renal and ovarian cancer studies all exhibit a significant inverse relationship between cancer incidence and oral intake of calcium.
Experimental studies have shown that calcium has anticarcinogenic effects due to its participation in regulating cell proliferation, cell differentiation, and inducing cell death (apoptosis) in cancerous cells. (28)
However it’s important to note that high calcium supplementation is not currently used as a preventive measure for cancer. More evidence is still needed and some studies even show that a high intake of calcium from certain sources, like dairy products, may actually increase prostate cancer risk.
5. Supports Muscle and Nerve Function
Calcium is involved in the release of neurotransmitters in the brain that control muscle movement and nerve signaling. Calcium helps cells communicate in order to relay nerve responses and activates certain proteins in the body which are needed by muscles to move and contract. (29) Calcium also helps with the control and release of glucose (sugar) in the blood stream, which is used by the muscles for “fuel”.
6. Helps with Weight Loss
Increasing dietary calcium may positively affect weight and fat loss. In studies, participants experienced an increase in the percentage of fat lost from the trunk (torso) region of the body when they consumed more calcium. (30)
7. Can Help Prevent Diabetes
Vitamin D and calcium consumed together may be beneficial in optimizing glucose metabolism and helping to prevent diabetes according to studies. (31) Vitamin D and calcium may have direct effects on the pancreatic cells that control insulin secretion and therefore blood sugar levels. Calcium is an essential component of cellular processes that occur within insulin responsive tissues like skeletal muscle and fat tissue.
In the famous 20-year long Nurses’ Health Study, researchers followed 83,779 women who had no history of diabetes and vitamin D and calcium intake from diet and supplements was assessed every 2-4 years. During 20 years of follow-up, the study observed that a combined daily intake of more than1,200 mg calcium and more than 800 IU vitamin D was associated with a 33% lower risk of type 2 diabetes. (32)
8. Needed to Maintain Dental Health
Calcium is stored partially in the teeth and is needed for tooth health and maintenance. Calcium may help defend against tooth decay and has been correlated with increased dental health for similar reasons that it protects bones. (33)
9. Helps with Indigestion
Calcium is used in over-the-counter antacid tablets that help digestion by reducing heartburn and symptoms of an upset stomach. (34) But antacids often just reduce your stomach acid which is the opposite of what you need. In fact, in nearly 80% of acid reflux cases, low stomach acid is the case. The reflux is actually cause by food that has been sitting in the stomach without enough stomach acid, so it ferments creating gas and pressure that reopens the LEM muscle that is the valve between your esophagus and the stomach. This allows acid to travel up and causes the burning or pressure in your chest.
Eating calcium rich foods can help reduce these symptoms because calcium helps the LEM valve that controls food moving into the stomach and when malfunctioning causes acid reflux. Taking calcium improves the LEM muscle function and can often help reverse the symptoms associated with GERD or acid reflux.
10. Can Help Prevent PMS Symptoms
Calcium has been shown to be useful in relieving PMS symptoms including bloating, cramps, headaches, breast tenderness, muscle aches, fatigue, and moodiness. (35) Calcium levels fluctuate during the menstrual cycle because as estrogen levels increase, calcium concentrations drop, therefore consuming enough calcium helps to balance this relationship and reduce painful symptoms.
Is Dairy Really the Best Source of Calcium?
Many studies have investigated whether or not dairy, and cow’s milk in particular, is the ideal source of calcium. Results have been mixed, with some observational studies showing that dairy has a positive effect on bone health, while others show that it has no effect, or even potentially harmful effects in certain cases.
One of the reasons that dairy products are often promoted as being the best source of calcium is because not only do dairy products contain calcium, but full-fat, grass-fed dairy foods are also a good source of vitamin K, phosphorus, and to some degree Vitamin D too. These nutrients are all equally important in supporting bone health as calcium is, because they work together to maintain bone mineral density. (18)
Another positive aspect of getting calcium from high quality dairy products is that dairy foods are high in protein. Although the opposite was initially thought to be true, recently many studies have found a significant positive relationship between higher protein intake and increased bone mass or density. According to researchers who conducted a 2011 study to investigate the effects of protein on skeletal health,
“The recommendation to intentionally restrict dietary protein to improve bone health is unwarranted, and potentially even dangerous to those individuals who consume inadequate protein.” (19)
Recent research shows that a diet high in calcium and also high in protein and other essential nutrients can positively impact bone health by aiding in more calcium absorption due to several biological mechanisms. Therefore for optimal bone health, it’s advised to eat high levels of calcium along with other important cofounding minerals and substantial protein too. Most of these nutrients can be found in high-quality dairy products like organic whey protein, raw unpasteurized milk, organic goat cheese, and kefir. (20)
One source of calcium that is almost ideal is raw milk. Raw milk is different from the normal cow’s milk, or even organic cow’s milk, that you’d find in the grocery store because it is just that- it’s fresh, raw, unpasteurized, and non-homogonized. This is what distinguishes raw milk from regular milk; it’s the processes that it doesn’t go through that retains its nutrients.
Raw also milk comes from healthy cows that are grass-fed and obtain more nutrients than conventional dairy cows, therefore their milk is higher in nutrients too. Only a small population of people choose to take advantage of raw milk’s benefits, while many more consume pasteurized dairy that is lower in nutrients and may actually harm bone health. This is the case because dairy milk becomes acidic when it goes through pasteurization and homogenization processes, and acidic substances actually harm bone health by forcing the body to leach alkaline substances from the bones in order to balance the pH level of the blood. Raw milk on the other hand, in its all natural state, is an alkaline food that supports bone health.
That being said, it’s also possible to get enough calcium without consuming dairy products. Vegetarians and vegans who eat a well-rounded whole foods diet for example can acquire calcium from plant sources including sea vegetables, beans, and leafy greens.
Concerns with Calcium
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding how much calcium people really should acquire in recent years, especially when it comes to the potential negative effects of calcium supplements. While different experts have differing opinions in terms of calcium supplementation, what most agree on is that getting calcium from a healthy diet should be your first priority.
The body absorbs calcium from food sources better than it does from supplements and it’s much less likely that you’d reach very high, harmful levels of calcium from food sources alone.
More research is still needed, but some researchers have become concerned in recent years that there may be a link between high levels of calcium (mostly from supplements) and heart disease. (36, 37) There’s potential for calcium to form fatty plaque build-up in arteries and to add to hardening and stiffening of arteries, which is a dangerous heart condition called atherosclerosis.
This can potentially lead to heart attacks or strokes, but again nothing is definitive at this point since studies have showed mixed results. Other controversies surrounding calcium are related to potential risks for cancer, including breast and prostate cancer. (38)
Studies investigating cancer and calcium have also been mixed, with some showing negative correlations, some showing positive correlations, and some showing that calcium has no effect on cancer rates. Because much is still unknown, it’s not recommended that most people take calcium supplements regularly, especially not high doses, without talking to a doctor first to weigh the pros and cons.
Although you need plenty of vitamin D when taking calcium, at the same time, there is too much of a good thing. Calcium and vitamin D taken in very high amounts can be problematic since vitamin D increases the effects of calcium.
Like with all nutrients, it’s never a good idea to obtain much more than you really need. In this case, very high levels of calcium can interact with drugs intended to treat heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, and other conditions. Calcium can also increase risk for kidney stones when taken in high amounts and can interfere with the absorption of other important minerals, like iron, magnesium and zinc.
Potential Dangers of Calcium Supplements
If you get enough calcium from healthy foods that you eat, which also have plenty of other nutrients to provide, then you won’t need to take a supplement. Always try to aim to get the recommended daily amount of calcium you need from foods first and supplement only if needed to make up for any serious shortfall.
Real food sources of calcium come perfectly packaged with all the enzymes, minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients that the body needs to properly digest and absorb these vital nutrients.
When we take supplements on the other hand, we are often missing the complex system of key ingredients found in real foods — plus we may be consuming low quality, synthetic, and harmful filler ingredients that the body doesn’t recognize or respond well to.
Taking more calcium than you actually need is not beneficial and will actually likely do harm. Very high levels of calcium can cause symptoms including nausea, bloating, constipation (especially calcium carbonate), dry mouth, abdominal pain, irregular heartbeat, confusion, kidney stones, and even death.
If you do speak to a professional about taking calcium supplements, make sure to discuss the possible pros and cons. If your doctor agrees that you should be taking supplements to avoid a serious problem, there are several kinds of calcium supplements available, each that has it s own type of calcium compound as the active ingredient. Some of the common calcium supplements include: (39)
- Calcium carbonate (40% elemental calcium)
- Calcium citrate (21% elemental calcium)
- Calcium gluconate (9% elemental calcium)
- Calcium lactate (13% elemental calcium)
The two most popular types of calcium supplements are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. (40) If you are going to take calcium supplements, aim to only take about 500 milligrams at one time, since your body cannot absorb much more than this at once. If you need a larger dose, plan to split up doses throughout the day.
Calcium is usually better absorbed when taken with food. Also keep in mind that you must obtain enough vitamin D and magnesium to use the calcium that you take, so it’s most beneficial to find a high-quality, food-based supplement that includes these essential nutrients as well.
Adding More Calcium To Your Diet Naturally
Total Time: 15-20 minutes
- Eggplant, thinly sliced to 1/8″
- Goat cheese
- Fresh basil, chopped
- Ghee, melted
- Sea salt
- Place thin slices of eggplant on a baking try. Brush both sides of strips with ghee and sprinkle with sea salt.
- Broil for 4-5 minutes on one side. Flip each strip and broil on opposite side for another 4-5 minutes.
- In a bowl, mix the goat cheese, finely chopped basil and raisins.
- Once the eggplant is out of the oven and cooled, spoon the cheese mixture into the middle of each strip
- Roll each eggplant and use toothpick to hold each together.
Total Time: 5 minutes
- 1-15oz can of white beans (rinsed, save the liquid)
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 2 teaspoon coconut aminos
- 2 Tablespoon Tobacco sauce
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon Curry
- 1/4 cup of liquid from beans (add water if needed)
- 1 Tablespoon Lime juice
- In blender, combine all ingredients. Blend until smooth.
- Serve with Mary’s Gone Crackers or fresh cut veggies
Total Time: 30-40 minutes
- 1 large cauliflower head, cut into small florets
- 1/2-3/4 cup kefir
- 1/2 cup goat milk cottage cheese, pureed
- 1 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 1/2 cups sheep or goat milk cheddar cheese
- 1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
- 1 teaspoon Sea Salt
- 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and bring pot of water to a boil
- Cook the cauliflower in the boiling water until slightly tender (about 5 minutes). Drain the cauliflower and pat dry with paper towels
- Grease an 8×8 pan with ghee and place dried cauliflower in pan
- In a saucepan over medium high heat, mix together the cottage cheese, kefir and mustard until smooth
- Stir in the cheese, salt, pepper and garlic powder and mix together until cheese just starts to melt
- Pour mixture over the cauliflower and stir. Top with any remaining cheese and bake for 10-15 minutes
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