Milk and dairy products in general are considered the most important foods for calcium intake because the calcium in milk is among the best absorbed and because milk contains a host of other nutrients that are beneficial to your health. However, milk consumption has declined in the United States as people seek to reduce calories and fat intake, on one hand, and replace milk with non-nourishing beverages on the other. With women over 60 consuming only about 60% of their recommended calcium, how we get our calcium has become an important public health issue.
Sodas Replacing Milk as Beverage of Choice
One disturbing trend affecting bone health is the replacement of milk as a beverage with carbonated sodas. While some parts of the population cut out milk to reduce calories, others are replacing milk with empty calories in the form of a carbonated, sugar-filled beverage. We only have soda consumption data available for this site since the 1970s but the fact is that in the 1940s, United States residents consumed about four times the milk as they did soda. In the 21st century, soda consumption far outpaces the consumption of milk.
Calcium in Beans and Legumes
For those not consuming dairy products, beans and legumes can be a reasonable source of calcium, just keep in mind that you absorb about half of the calcium in beans that you would in milk. Eat more beans to make up the difference. Winged beans, soy beans, and white beans top the list of iron-rich beans.
One way you can get more calcium out of your beans is to soak them overnight in warm water. The process is simple, will reduce your cooking time, and will improve your ability to absorb the calcium in the beans. Read more about soaking beans at the Traditional Foods site.
Calcium in Grains
Though beans are a better source of calcium than grains, gram-for-gram, teff and amaranth do stand out as higher calcium grain options. Both of these grain/seed foods quite small (quite like a poppy seed) and so their texture is different in grain salads like tabouli. There are flours available for each of these grains. We do recommend buying the flour because it can be difficult to grind such small grains with common kitchen equipment.
However, these high calcium grains and the families of grains and seeds as a whole do not have calcium that is easily absorbed. Like beans, the calcium in grains is blocked by a calcium inhibitor called phytic acid. As with soaking beans, phytic acid can be reduced in the grains by soaking them before cooking them. If you eat a hot breakfast cereal you can soak it overnight in warm water to reduce the phytic acid, improve your calcium absorption, and reduce your cooking time as well. You can use the same strategy for grain-based salads like tabouli — soak it overnight in warm water before cooking it. For breads, sourdough preparation is the most effective method at reducing phytic acid in the grains. Read more about soaking grains at the Traditional Foods website.
Calcium in Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits generally are fairly low in calcium, but some vegetables are stand-outs for their calcium content. Grape leaves and the wild-growing “lambs quarters” are high in calcium, as is kale and spinach. Explore the calcium content of your favorite vegetables, check out fruits as well.
The biggest issue to keep in mind with vegetables is that many high calcium vegetables have a substance called oxalic acid that binds to that calcium. A spinach label, for instance, will display a high content of calcium, but your body will not be able to absorb it well because of the oxalic acid. However, there are preparation strategies you can use to free up the calcium bound by oxalic acid — boiling and steaming in particular. Read the food science behind this recommendation (calcium and high oxalate vegetables) to explore whether these strategies will work for you in your kitchen.