Many of us have been told since infancy to drink our milk to grow up and have strong, healthy bones. But milk isn’t the only way to get this vital mineral in your diet. A number of vegetables, legumes and even fruits are rich in calcium, and they also offer a more robust portfolio of minerals and nutrients within. Check out these seven non-dairy sources of calcium that have been scientifically proven to supply long-term bone health.
Milk is the preferred source of calcium in the standard American diet. An 8-ounce serving of milk (or of yogurt) provides 300mg calcium, just about one-third of the 1000mg recommended by the RDA for healthy adults. If milk was your only source of calcium during the day, you’d be aiming for at least three full glasses per day.
Yet some nutrition experts criticize drinking milk for calcium, as it can lead to magnesium deficiencies. Having an imbalance of calcium and magnesium in the body is a popular explanation for the fact that many individuals who consume large amounts of dairy still get bone fractures and osteoporosis later in life. Bones need both calcium and magnesium (along with a host of other trace minerals) to stay strong and flexible.
Whether you’re turned off by drinking that much milk, or if you have dairy allergies, or if you follow a non-dairy diet, know that you have options. Calcium is abundant in many other food sources from animal to vegetal. You need to be aware, however, that simply looking at the calcium info on the nutrition label of a certain food may not indicate how much calcium your body will actually get out of it. It all boils down to the idea of bioavailability.
The term “bioavailable” refers to how much of a certain substance actually reaches its target. In the case of calcium, there are certain components in different foods that inhibit your body’s ability to absorb and utilize that calcium. Take oxalic acid, for example. It’s a strong inhibitor of calcium absorption and is found in high amounts in spinach, chard, and beet greens, for example. This doesn’t mean you should never eat such foods; rather, just don’t count on them as major calcium sources.
Taking into account different foods' bioavailability of calcium, here are seven notable choices that compete with milk. You’ll find how much of each food it takes to equate to the calcium found in an 8-ounce serving of milk.
- Bok choy: This Chinese leafy green vegetable would appear to be most similar to lettuce: it’s tender, light, watery, crisp and would seem to be low in nutrition density. But just 1 cup of cooked boy choy equals the same amount of calcium as an 8-ounce glass of milk.
- Kale: The beloved “superfood” green vegetable boasts calcium as just one of many minerals found inside its chewy, dense leaves. In 1 ½ cups of cooked kale, you’ll get the same amount of calcium as an 8-ounce glass of milk.
- Turnip greens: Turnips can be used with squash, potatoes and root veggies in winter dishes; don’t throw out their greens! Turnip greens are rich in bioavailable calcium; just 1 cup of cooked greens gives you the calcium of an 8-ounce glass of milk.
- Sea vegetables: Sea vegetables seem to do only good for the body. They flush out toxins and heavy metals from our system and supply ample amounts of trace minerals. Pile your lunch bowl with a large heaping of alaria (or wakame) and kelp for a calcium boost; 4 cups of the seaweed equals the calcium of an 8-ounce glass of milk.
- Tofu: Tofu isn’t as hot as it used to be with health nuts in the ‘90s, but it does still deserve credit when due. With most tofu varieties, just a ½-cup serving has the same amount of calcium as an 8-ounce glass of milk.
- Dried figs: Believe it or not, these dried fruits are an excellent source of dietary calcium. Ten fruits supplies the same amount as an 8-ounce glass of milk.
- Sustainable bony fish: You don’t have to be strictly vegan to do dairy-free. If you ever eat fish, check out Alaskan salmon, sardines and mackerel (all sustainable choices) for a serious calcium boost. A 3-ounce serving contains the same amount of calcium as an 8-ounce glass of milk.
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