Don’t eat dairy? Where do you get your calcium?

Calcium is one of the most essential nutrients required by the body. Not only do we need it for strong bones BUT it’s required for many of body’s simple life functions; we need it for our muscles to move; our nerves to transmit vital messages; for the release of hormones & enzymes; for the health of our teeth. That all looks & sounds very important…. Making it relatively simple to see that not getting enough calcium in one’s diet can be problematic.

The amount of calcium required by the body depends on your age, generally peaking during your teenage years when skeletal & bone growth are occurring rapidly.

Life Stage Recommended Amount
Birth to 6 months 200 mg
Infants 7–12 months 260 mg
Children 1–3 years 700 mg
Children 4–8 years 1,000 mg
Children 9–13 years 1,300 mg
Teens 14–18 years 1,300 mg
Adults 19–50 years 1,000 mg
Adult men 51–70 years 1,000 mg
Adult women 51–70 years 1,200 mg
Adults 71 years and older 1,200 mg
Pregnant and breastfeeding teens 1,300 mg
Pregnant and breastfeeding adults 1,000 mg

It’s scary when you look at the statistics and discover that 90% of us are probably not getting enough calcium. Our bodies cannot produce it, we must get it from our diet. If we don’t? We leach it out of our bones, making them brittle & opening up a whole series of health risks that none of us want to deal with.

When most people think calcium they assume milk, yoghurt & cheese; well yes they are absolutely correct, those are very good dairy based sources of calcium. A large majority of the population would get adequate calcium intake from sources such as these. 12% of your daily ccalcium-sourcesalcium requirements are found in 100ml of cows milk. Make it a glass and that’s around 30% of what you need.

What happens to those of us (like me) that can’t tolerate dairy? Those who are lactose intolerant? Where do we get calcium from?

Some of the best sources include

  • Greens & vegetables: kale, broccoli, turnip greens, Asian greens such as pak choi & fennel
  • Beans; soy beans, pinto beans, white beans.
  • Nuts & seeds: chia seeds, sesame seeds & almonds
  • Fruits: blackcurrants & oranges

How much of these foods do you need to eat to get your daily fix?

SPINACH SPINACH SPINACH. Really I think this little gem should get be labelled a ‘superfood’. 1 cup equates to 240mg of calcium. That’s ¼ of what you need on a daily basis. Other greens such as broccoli & kale are also good, but not quite calcium rich, with 1 cup being around 1/10th of what you need per day. So you can see you need A LOT of greens & veggies if they are going to be your sole source of this wonder nutrient.

Canned fish such as sardines, salmon & anchovies can contain up to 350mg per 100g. Not only is this a great source of calcium but contains a lot of other great essential vitamins and minerals. An important note here, you have to buy the fish with bones! That’s where all the calcium is hiding.

If you are anything like me and look for any opportunity to reach into the nut jar go for almonds, a handful of around 20 raw almonds can give you a good 80mg of calcium. They are also a good source of potassium & iron. Watch your intake though, nuts are very very calorie dense, believe it or not it is possible to eat too much of the good stuff.

Sesame seeds are another great one. Add one tablespoon to a salad to create a little crunch and you will ingest around 10% of your daily requirements. Who said sesame seeds were just for hamburger bun decoration?

Like most important minerals in our body calcium doesn’t work alone, rather it works in synergy with vitamin D and magnesium. We need adequate levels of both these minerals to ensure ingested calcium is actually absorbed into our cells.

Where do we get these from? Well vitamin D is obvious… the SUN and then there is oily fish such as salmon or sardines, cod liver oil and prawns. Some magnesium rich foods include nuts & seeds, avocado, broccoli, bananas, spinach & dark chocolate (as if you needed another excuse to have chocolate). There is a fair amount of cross over in terms of natural food sources when it comes to all three of these nutrients.

If taken in high doses, calcium and magnesium will compete for absorption in the body (>250mg), making it more likely for you to be deficient in one or the other. If you are taking supplements be mindful to take them at separate times, for example one in the evening & one in the morning. This isn’t such an issue when it comes to natural food sources as rarely are the doses found in a meal that high.

Factors that can affect calcium absorption include too much caffeine, excessive alcohol, smoking, low levels of physical activity and a diet excessively high in salt.

Logistically it’s easier to consume adequate calcium through a balance of dairy & non-dairy sources. One must work alot harder to get enough through non dairy sources discussed above BUT if you are aware of the right foods it is certainly possible. If you eat a well balanced diet filled with lots of leafy green vegetables, enough of the ‘good fats’ and lots of protein you should have nice strong bones & pearly white teeth!

Want some more information?

This article raises some great points and also lists the calcium levels in many of the common foods that we eat.

The Dynamic Duo – Why a calcium / magnesium balance is essential to our health.

My mother is one of the smartest people I know. She is more often than not right about most things and while it frustrates me ALOT I can’t help but secretly smile at how awesome most of her advice is.

On my last visit home to Bowral mum and I launched into one of our usual health related debates, this time centred on what supplements one should take. I am personally not a huge tablet taker, I take fish oil daily, an occasional zinc tablet and magnesium nightly before bed because I suffer the world’s worst night cramps. Since starting to take magnesium about 18 months ago my nocturnal cramps are fewer and less regular but I still get them several times a week.

Mum launched into a full blown discussion about how people take this and that and how do we actually know that our body is absorbing what we put into it…. Ok so I zoned out a little… until on the topic of my cramps the relationship between calcium and magnesium came up.

A while back I wrote a blog about magnesium and the important role it plays in many of our bodily functions. (Read that blog HERE) And all of this still holds true, magnesium is arguably the MASTER nutrient. BUT now thanks to my mother (and a little extra research on the side) I have realised that getting sufficient magnesium intake is a little more complicated than taking a tablet before bed. In the process she has quite possibly found the missing puzzle piece to my night cramping conundrum.

The body is impeccably designed, so much so that everything requires a balance. Too much of one thing inhibits absorption of another etc etc. When it comes to magnesium, one must consider its relationship to calcium. Most of us know that calcium is VITAL to the health of our teeth and bones. But calcium cannot act alone, it needs magnesium. These two minerals need to co-exist together to allow many critical bodily functions to take place. Too little of one or too much of another can lead to many health consequences!


What do we need calcium and magnesium for exactly?

In order for us to go about our daily activity, small electrical impulses take place in our neuromuscular system, this transmits a signal via the nerves to the brain to bring about movement. In order for these impulses to be transmitted calcium needs to enter our cells, through channels operated by magnesium. Calcium does its job then magnesium is again required to get rid of the used calcium before it crystallizes.

Not having enough magnesium leaves calcium deposits in the cells and can lead to headaches, migraines, heart disease etc etc

Like magnesium, calcium is also required at a muscular level. Magnesium is a muscle relaxant while calcium helps with contraction of muscle tissue. Having too much may lead to muscle twitching while chronic calcium deficiency can result in muscle cramping and spasm.

  • Calcium: backbone mineral (literally) for development and maintenance of bones and teeth, while also important for muscle contraction/relaxation, nerve impulse transmission, metabolism
  • Magnesium: The master nutrient for enzyme reactions in over 300 of the bodies cellular reactions, important for muscle relxation, REQUIRED for absorbtion of CALCIUM and other essential nutrients, regulation of body temperature and pH levels

Calcium + magnesium = THE DYNAMIC DUO

Both minerals require each other for utilisation and absorption in the body.

As a side note, we must also consider Vitamin D. Our bodies synthesize vitamin D when exposed to the sun. Unsurprisingly, with all the media focus on preventing skin cancer and the importance of sunscreen (which of course is no doubt very very important) many of us are actually Vitamin D deficient. Our skin needs to be exposed to some natural sunlight in order to get adequate vitamin D. Vitamin D is required to help the body absorb and regulate calcium levels in the blood, BUT in order for vitamin D to work it needs magnesium to convert it into its active form in our bloodstream.

In summary: Calcium and magnesium cannot exist alone. In order for our bodies to work as efficiently as they were designed to we need adequate amounts of both. Magnesium is needed to convert vitamin D into its active form and we need magnesium and vitamin D to absorb calcium. And so we come full circle.

Let’s look at a real life case study….. ME

Fit healthy 24 year old female. Exercises daily. Takes daily magnesium which have reduced incidence but not cured night cramps. In the last 18 months I have completely cut dairy from my diet due to skin allergies. So where do I get my calcium from? I did a little experiment and for 4 days I entered everything I ate into a program which tracked my calcium intake… average daily intake was 24% of my required level. PROBLEM.

My calcium:magnesium ration is way way way way out of whack.

Solution: Again thanks to my wise wise mother. Take a calcium supplement. I kid you not my night cramps have all but disappeared. I think I have suffered one or two nights since beginning to take calcium 3 weeks ago.

If there is anyting to take from this blog, other than mothers are ALWAYS right,  its simply that to address deficiencies in our diet (of which most of us probably have a few) we need to look at the whole picture. If you have concerns about levels of certain nutrients or you think you may be deficient in something, chat to your GP,  a qualified nutritionist or naturopath. These things can be tested and looked into but best done by a professional.

Happy Tuesday!