Updated: Mar 16, 2021
Let’s start with why it’s so important to get enough calcium in our diets. Most of us associate it with keeping our bones strong and that’s exactly right, but it’s not the whole story. You see calcium is actually a vital mineral involved in many other body functions like keeping our nerves firing properly, our muscles contracting efficiently including our heart muscle, as well as maintaining a consistent pH level in our blood. The body sees these functions as a priority (thank goodness!) and if our dietary intake of calcium falls below what we need to carry out these functions, it will take calcium from our bones to correct the shortfall. Obviously, this is not an ideal solution, because it can lead to reduced bone density and conditions such as osteoporosis. The amount of bone we have in our skeleton is called bone mass, and this peaks during our 20's and begins to decline as we age. Diet and lifestyle play a big role in this and can mean the difference between strong bones and increased risk of fractures in our older years.
When it comes to calcium-containing foods, we’ve always been told that dairy is the best way to increase dietary intake of calcium. It’s true that milk, cheese, yoghurt and other dairy foods pack a punch when it comes to calcium, with 250ml of milk providing around one third of the daily calcium requirements for adults*. BUT what if you don’t consume dairy? Many of us don’t for a variety of reasons such as intolerance to lactose or casein, or because we choose to eat a plant-based diet.
There are actually a wide range of non-dairy foods that contain good amounts of calcium, and by including a variety of these in our daily diet we can ensure that we are obtaining what we need. Some of the best non-dairy calcium sources come from eating fish with bones such as sardines and tinned salmon. A small tin of salmon with bones can provide around 200mg of calcium along with other beneficial nutrients including omega 3 fatty acids. Below is a short list of non-dairy calcium sources that can be combined into delicious meals.
As well as ensuring we consume enough calcium to protect our bones, there are also some other beneficial nutrients that work alongside it, including magnesium, vitamin D and vitamin K. Another great thing about eating a wide range of foods to increase calcium intake, is that often they also contain these other nutrients.
Along with a healthy diet, other factors that can improve your bone health include:
*Regular exercise stimulates bone regeneration
*Safe exposure to sunlight stimulates vitamin D production in our skin
*Eating moderate protein from a variety of animal and plant sources (high protein diets can increase calcium losses)
*Reducing processed foods as these are often high in sodium and sugar that can increase calcium losses
*Reduce Excessive caffeine·
*The current recommended daily intake (RDI) of calcium for adults 19-50 is 1000mg/day. Women over the age of 50 require 1300mg daily to reduce bone loss associated with hormone changes during menopause, and men over the age of 70 years also have increased requirements to protect from osteoporosis.
Obviously, the earlier in life that we adopt these practices the better for our bones; but it's really never too late to start and the benefits to your health will be worth it!