This article is also available on Nutrition in Motion's blog NIM Dish
Calcium: More Than Just a Glass of Milk
Sarah Reid, RHNC
The obvious “cure” to the poor calcium levels occurring in up to 70% of Westernized diets would be to pop a supplement pill. But simply getting enough in terms of “numbers” doesn’t always mean 100% absorption. At its peak absorption capacity (around 8 years old), the bloodstream only retains about 60% of total calcium it takes in. As you age and your stomach acids decrease, your ability to “lock in” the mineral can drop as low as 10%. Your body becomes overwhelmed when given concentrated doses of the mineral over 500mg at a time, which in effect leads to less being absorbed overall. Diets high in salt, caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol and/or protein inhibit the blood’s retention of calcium, and can in fact cause a faster depletion. Multi-mineral supplements are another stumbling block – zinc, iron and magnesium all interfere with calcium as well as each other. Studies have also shown that calcium supplements taken in high doses (above 500mg) over 5 years heightens the risk of developing CVD or stroke more than reducing the risk of fractures. Excess calcium from supplements has also been linked to the development of cystic breasts, kidneys, prostate and ovaries. These risks were not correlated to diets rich in calcium due to two factors: 1) no natural food delivers a concentrated dose of that amount per reasonable serving and 2) whole foods provide buffering minerals and compounds that “meter” calcium absorption in the gut.
When it comes to your diet, boosting your calcium doesn’t have to be only drinking your milk. Notwithstanding the fact that almost 50 million adults in the USA are lactose intolerant (and casein is a common “hidden” allergy), the Western diet is chronically high in the phosphorus, caffeine, sugar and protein that competes with the mineral. The ideal diet contains a 1:4 ratio of phosphorus : calcium, but meat products and pop are extremely phosphoric, which drains calcium ions from the body through urine. Depending on the type and quantity of dairy, even the protein in dairy products can inhibit overall calcium absorption. Calcium in foods like whole grains and dark green vegetables like kale is also blocked, this time by the oxalic and phytic organic acids. The best way to assure the highest retention of calcium from your diet is to incorporate a wide variety of whole foods, cooking whole grains and vegetables like spinach, greens, chard and kale. Going “meatless” one day a week by incorporating tofu, beans and small amounts of low-fat dairy has benefits too – not just for the sake of controlling cholesterol intake but also lowering the body’s phosphorus stores. Using plenty of fresh herbs is one more natural supplement – basil, dill and thyme are all incredibly high in calcium per serving, and because they lack the antagonistic acids the mineral finds its way into the body more readily.
Clearly, the “natural” route of getting your calcium is the most effective (and tastiest) method. However, if you are a person who does not regularly consume dairy or fortified products, you can’t kick your caffeine habit or sweet tooth, are over 50 or already have marked bone degeneration, the best option in the supplement aisle is calcium citrate in an amount no more than 500 mg per day, ideally split into two 250 mg pills taken away from food.
Here’s an awesome calcium-rich recipe packed with fruit to try out at home! It’s vegan and gluten free, and really kid friendly (especially if you add a little maple syrup!) and provides 31% of the RDA in one serving!
Makes 2 “adult” portions or 4 “kid” portions
1 cup of frozen, unsweetened blueberries
1 large, ripe mango, chopped
1 cup strawberries
2 tbsp rice bran
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 ¼ cups low-fat, plain soy milk (I use Silk Plain Light)
10 oz low-fat, silken tofu (Mori-Nu or similar)
Combine all ingredients in a blender and process until smooth and pourable.
Serve immediately, or pour into popsicle moulds and freeze for snacks.
Amount Per (Adult) Serving
Total Fat: 6.9 g
Cholesterol: 0.0 mg
Sodium: 202.3 mg
Total Carbs: 45.0 g
Dietary Fiber: 9.1 g
Protein: 16.1 g
Vitamin D: 19%