The Case For Getting Calcium From Plant Foods

The American Heart Association states that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than nonvegetarians do.

Bones need calcium. Doctors, dietitians and researchers agree on this point.

Conventional wisdom holds that dairy foods are the best source of calcium, and that American adults need to increase their dairy intake to get the large amount of calcium their bodies need every day. Not everyone, however, believes the conventional wisdom.

Lately a small but highly respected band of scientists has been speaking out. They say Americans need less calcium than dietary guidelines recommend, and that drinking cup after cup of milk is not the best way to get it.

The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, which followed more than 72,000 women for 18 years, showed no protective effect of increased milk consumption on fracture risk. While calcium is important for bone health, studies show that increasing consumption beyond approximately 600 mg per day—amounts that are easily achieved without dairy products or calcium supplements—does not improve bone integrity.

PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) [website] states, 
"Milk’s main selling point is calcium, and milk-drinking is touted for building strong bones in children and preventing osteoporosis in older persons. However, clinical research shows that dairy products have little or no benefit for bones."
They go on to say, 
"You can decrease your risk of osteoporosis by reducing sodium and animal protein intake in the diet, increasing intake of fruits and vegetables, exercising, and ensuring adequate calcium intake from plant foods such as kale, broccoli, and other leafy green vegetables and beans. You can also use calcium-fortified products such as breakfast cereals and juices, although these products provide more concentrated calcium than is necessary."
T. Colin Campbell, professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University , questions dairy's place in the dietary guidelines. 
"I like dairy. I grew up on a farm. But one has to look at the facts," he says. "Dairy has been considered a health food, and that's an unfortunate myth."
Campbell 's views come from observations he and his colleagues made during a series of nutritional studies that began in 1983 and are collectively known as the China Study [book]. In these studies, Campbell found that Asians, who consume far less dietary calcium than Americans, have one-fifth the bone fracture rate of Americans.
"Those countries that use the most cow's milk and its products also have the highest fracture rates and the worst bone health," Campbell says.
Americans have weak bones not because they drink too little milk but because they drink too much, Campbell says. Animal protein, such as the protein in milk, makes blood and tissues more acidic, and to neutralize this acid, the body pulls calcium, which is a very effective base, from the bones. Because dairy products contain substantial amounts of animal protein, drinking milk actually robs the bones of calcium, he says. The more meat and milk Americans eat, he says, the more calcium they need to consume to process that protein.

Many others agree, Dr. Ben Kim [website] says, 
"My research and clinical experiences have led me to believe that it's best to rely mainly on plant sources of calcium to build and maintain strong bones."
The average daily calcium intake for South African blacks is 196 mg whereas the daily calcium intake for African-Americans is more than 1,000 mg. Yet the hip fracture rate for African-Americans compared to South African blacks is nine times greater. [Calif Tissue Int 1992;50:14-18]. A possible explanation for this apparent contradiction is that countries with high calcium intakes also tend to have high protein intakes. Since dairy cattle are slaughtered for meat when their milk consumption is no longer cost-efficient, dairy-producing countries also have a constant supply of animal protein. The meat consumption that is common in these countries probably contributes to their high rates of osteoporosis and not to mention that dairy is high in animal protein too.

A 12 year study in 1997 that followed 77,000 women showed that women who drink 2 or more glasses of milk are actually almost 50 percent higher risk of fracture than those who don’t drink milk [

The optimal calcium intake is not known. The World Health Organization recommends 400-500 milligrams of calcium per day for adults.

PCRM says, 

"The most healthful calcium sources are green leafy vegetables and legumes. They have several advantages that dairy products lack. They contain antioxidants, complex carbohydrate, fiber, and iron, and have little fat and no cholesterol. The calcium absorption from vegetables is as good or better than that of milk."
Plant foods clearly offer a better quality calcium, and can offer the right balance of nutrients for bone health, something cow's milk can not.

Calcium Found In Health Promoting Plant Foods

FIGS are one of the highest sources of fiber and calcium. Fresh and dried figs are both healthy choices for calcium-rich food, although the dried fig provides much more calcium than the fresh version. Figs are rich in iron, magnesium, and potassium which are good for the bones too. I recommend soaking the dried figs overnight to decrease the concentration of sugars.

ALMONDS/ALMOND MILK It has been found that around 15 almonds provide up to 40-50 mg of calcium. Almonds provide more calcium than any other tree nut. They are also high in magnesium, copper and phosphorus. For a more concentrated amount of calcium, make almond milk. Simply soak the almonds overnight, and in the morning blend them in your blender with water. Then strain them through a nut milk bag [here]. A great alternative to cow's milk.

BRAZIL NUTS Brazil nuts are quite a good source of calcium at about 190mg/100grams, a very good source of magnesium (225mg/100 gms) and a particularly good source of selenium. I like to soak a few with my almonds for almond/brazil nut milk loaded with calcium and other bone building nutrients.

SESAME SEEDS A cup of sesame seeds contains three times more calcium than a cup of whole milk. Sesame seed contains 90 mg of calcium per tablespoon of unhulled seed and 10 mg for the hulled seed. You can eat sesame in the form of tahini, soak them overnight to make a milk, grind up to sprinkle on food, or sprinkle as is. A powerfully nutritious little seed but not to be used in excess.

CHIA SEEDS are packed full of calcium (and omega 3).
About 2 oz of them contains 600 mg of calcium, much more than cow's milk, and in perfect balance with other bone nutrients. They are loaded with other bone healthy nutrients such as boron and potassium. One of the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. A little goes a long way.

KALE A great source of calcium and packed full of other nutrients and antioxidants. The calcium in kale is more readily absorbed by the body than the calcium in cow's milk. Kale also ranks higher in bioavailable calcium than other greens. It takes 15.5 servings of spinach or 5.2 servings of broccoli to equal the same amount of available calcium found in 3.5 servings of kale. Make sure to eat raw, not only cooked.

According to an article from the Harvard School of Public Health, one cup of collard greens contains 357 milligrams of calcium, but a cup of milk has just 306. Collard greens also are one of the leafy greens with calcium that is more absorbable, like kale. In addition to calcium, Collard greens contain Vitamin K which plays a role with calcium in keeping bones healthy and strong.

KELP This incredible sea vegetable provides an amazing 1,093 mg of calcium/100 g serving. Buy a bag of organic kelp and use it for soups and smoothies, or buy the sprinkles for convenience.

Watercress is a source of calcium containing 170mg (21% RDA) per 100g. Dr. Garland says, "While living in the far north of India at the base of the Himalayas, I noticed how incredibly strong-boned both the men and women were who worked in the tea plantations each day. Even those who were in their 70’s and 80’s showed no signs of arthritis, rheumatism or osteoporosis. I asked why and was given a simple, very nourishing soup to try. It is the famous “Strong Bones Soup” from Simla, India. It is high in all the bone-building minerals Calcium, Strontium and Boron, and Magnesium." 

Foods With Over 100 Mg Of Calcium In 100 Grams (3.53 OZ.)
This list also includes animal milks for comparison purposes. They are underlined and bolded.

Celery seed 1767 mg
Poppy seed 1438
Sesame seed 975
Cumin seed 931
Tofu 683
Chia seeds 631
Almond butter 270
Almonds 248
Peppermint, fresh 244
White Beans 240
Spearmint, fresh 199
Flax seed 199
Kidney beans 195
Dandelion greens 197
Basil, fresh 177
Brazil Nuts 176
Arugula, raw 160
Wakame Seaweed 150
Collards, raw 145
Figs, dried 144
Kale, raw 135
Milk, goat 133
Mung beans 132
Milk, cow nonfat 123
Pinto beans 121
Watercress, raw 120
Milk, cow 3.7% 119
Sunflower seed 116
Hazelnuts 114
Tempeh 111
Chickpeas 105
Mustard greens, raw 103
Milk, human 32

There are plenty of plant foods with calcium content under 100 mg (in fact most plant foods have at least a little calcium). This list only shows the plant foods which exceed 100 mg, and apparently also exceed cow's milk calcium content, without difficulty. These are potent calcium rich plant foods, and should not be eaten in enormous amounts.

As you can see on the list, human milk is actually quite low in calcium (and protein at only 1.1%). This is interesting to note and makes you wonder how much calcium (and protein) the human body really needs.

Vitamin D & Calcium Absorption

Eating foods rich in calcium is not the only consideration regarding the maintenance of calcium levels. Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption. The most important source of this vitamin is the action of sunlight on skin. It is important to get regular exposure to natural light, in order to manufacture adequate supplies of vitamin D.

If regular exposure to sunlight is not possible, vitamin D is available in supplement form, and in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and margarines. 

Tips on How To Get Enough Calcium

The health of your bones has more to do with other factors than it does with how much calcium you ingest.

Here is how to optimize your bone health:

  • Calcium: Get your calcium from foods. This means that you eat more green leafy vegetables.
  • Vitamin D: Make sure you get enough vitamin D3.
  • Exercise: Slows bone loss and is one of the most important factors in maintaining bone health. 
  • Foods: Both high salt and high protein will reduce the amount of calcium you have. Consider a vegetarian or mostly-vegetarian diet.
  • Alcohol inhibits calcium absorption.
  • Caffeine increases the rate at which calcium is lost through urine.
  • The mineral boron may slow the loss of calcium from bones.
  • Vitamin K, potassium, magnesium contributes to bone health.
  • Taking synthetic iron and zinc supplements can inhibit calcium absorption.
  • A 12-ounce cola drink might rob your body of 100 milligrams of calcium.
  • Vitamin C improves the absorption of calcium.
  • High consumption of potassium reduces the urinary excretion of calcium.
  • Phytic acid, found in whole grains, nuts, and legumes, can bind to calcium to form and insoluble complex, thereby decreasing the absorption of calcium. This is why you must soak or sprout these foods; it decreases the phytic acid content considerably.

Calcium Supplements
If you must supplement here is a list of the different kinds of supplemental calciums. 

Calcium asparginate, anhydrous highest amount of absorbable calcium per pill and does not require magnesium supplementation as the other supplements do.

Calcium carbonate highest amount of calcium per pill but may cause intestinal gas and/or constipation, and is poorly absorbed
Calcium citrate less calcium per pill but better absorbed than carbonate. No known side effects 
Calcium phosphate already too much phosphorus in average diet so avoid this form
Calcium lactate The type of calcium in milk. Usually well absorbed, does not cause lactose reaction in most people. Lactate is usually derived from lactic acid
Calcium gluconate Usually very well tolerated, easily absorbed. Can require many pills to get any amount of calcium
Dolomite bone meal may be contaminated with lead, know your supplier.

There are a few whole food calcium supplements, such as Mega Food, that are worth checking out.
Did you know?

-Greens have calcium absorption rates of over 50%, compared with 32% in milk.
-75% of people seeking osteoporosis advice are Vitamin D deficient.
-Daily lettuce added to one's diet can lead to 45% reduced risk of hip fractures.

Valuable Studies About Calcium and Dairy:


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