Calcium Q & A

May 14, 2008 | 32 Comments

“Drink more milk, it makes your teeth and bones stronger”, is a mantra we hear all around us. The U.S. government recommends drinking three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk a day to meet our calcium and protein needs.

Bee, who was vegan for many years, was advised by her doctor after some tests, to “double your calcium intake.”

“Drink more milk”, the doctor droned.

So Bee started consuming low-fat milk and yogurt daily (only organic).

Chocolate-coated, of course.

Then, in the March 2005 issue of the journal Pediatrics, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine came out with a statement criticising the U.S. government and the dairy industry for spreading misinformation about the relationship between dairy and calcium.

Of 37 studies reviewed, 27 were found to show no relationship between dairy or dietary calcium and bone health in children and young adults. The remaining studies found only a small association.

The researchers concluded that physical activity early in life appears to be a stronger predictor of bone health than dairy consumption.
(Source)

The dairy industry, of course, begs to differ. They will point out that milk is, undoubtedly, a good and easy source of calcium. An 8-ounce glass (the fat content does not matter) contains about 300 milligrams of calcium.

So what exactly is the controversy about?

Why are some doctors and researchers opposed to publicising milk as the best calcium source?

We checked out a few online resources and this is what we learnt.

WHY DO WE NEED CALCIUM?

Calcium is important for maintaining healthy teeth and bones. It is required for the proper functioning of muscles and nerves, and for helping blood clot when we cut ourselves.

HOW MUCH?

It depends on age. Older people need more because of the increased risk of osteoperosis, which literally means “porous bones“.

Age / Calcium (mg/day)
0 to 6 months: 210
7 to 12 months: 270
1 to 3 years: 500
4 to 8 years: 800
9 to 13 years: 1300
14 to 18 years: 1000
19 to 50 years: 1000
51+ years: 1200

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE CALCIUM LEVEL IN OUR BODY DROPS TOO LOW?

When calcium levels drop too low, the body taps into the calcium in our bones, making them brittle. The average person loses between 400 and 500 mg of calcium per day.

IS DAIRY A GOOD SOURCE OF CALCIUM?

Milk: Is it Overrated?

It’s a decent source, but vegetarians and vegans have better options.

Dairy is high in calcium, but it’s also high in protein.

High-protein diets appear to lead to increased calcium losses. This study reports a very high prevalence of osteoperosis amidst Alaskan Eskimos, whose diet is very high in meat (protein). “Calcium intake is sufficiently high to preclude a deficiency,” the report says. It is believed that animal protein is acid-producing and leaches out some of the body’s calcium.

The body naturally removes some of its calcium through gut secretions, sweat and urine.

American, English and Swedish women have high rates of osteoperosis, though their dairy consumption levels are high.

DOES THAT MEAN WE NEED TO CONSUME LESS PROTEIN TO CUT DOWN CALCIUM LOSS?

No. Protein is essential for calcium absorption. It’s the type of protein consumed that makes all the difference. Plant protein has a positive or neutral impact on calcium absorption. Animal protein has a negative impact.

If protein intake is inadequate (less than 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight), the body will lack the building blocks for muscle and bone; and growth hormones, which stimulate muscle and bone building, will decline to undesirable levels. Consuming less than the recommended amount of protein in order to reduce calcium loss is therefore a false economy. Although protein excess is more common than protein deficiency in Western society, individuals with a low calorie intake, such as the very old, are particularly at risk of getting insufficient protein.

….. A person trying to increase protein intake using meat or fish, for example, will lose about 25 milligrams of calcium from their body for every 100 grams eaten. In contrast, a 100-gram portion of beans (by dry weight) has an approximately neutral effect on calcium balance while providing the same amount of protein. (Source)

See THIS POST for plant-based protein sources.

IT’S CONFUSING. SHOULD I CONSUME DAIRY OR NOT FOR MY CALCIUM SUPPLY?

Milk and yogurt are okay. Try to ensure that they are low-fat and organic.

8-ounce glass of milk = 300 milligrams
6 ounces of yogurt = 300 milligrams

A 2 ounce piece of Swiss cheese has 530 milligrams, but it is also loaded with fat and sodium. High sodium affects calcium absorption. Other sources like cream cheese don’t provide much calcium at all. One tablespoon of cream cheese provides only 12 milligrams of calcium.

Plus, fortified dairy products can be high in retinol (vitamin A), which at high levels can paradoxically weaken bones.

WHAT ARE THE VEGAN SOURCES OF CALCIUM?

Orange, bananas, red peppers, apricots, pears, prunes, broccoli, sweet potatoes, dried figs, beans, dark, green leafy vegetables, nuts like chestnuts and hazelnuts, and whole variety of seeds (especially sesame seeds).

HERE is a list of high-calcium vegan foods.

Good plant sources of calcium include tofu (if prepared using calcium sulphate contains more than four times the calcium of whole cow’s milk), green leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts. The calcium in green vegetables which are not high in oxalate e.g. kale, is absorbed as well or better than the calcium from cow’s milk. Some soya milks … are fortified with calcium. Drinking hard water can provide 200mg of calcium daily but soft water contains almost none. Other calcium rich foods include black molasses, edible seaweeds, watercress, parsley and dried figs. (Source)

Baked Tofu

When buying tofu, get the type that is prepared using calcium sulphate (gypsum), not nigari (magnesium chloride). Nigari supposedly makes the tofu softer, but the other variety is higher in calcium.

Calcium-rich: Watercress with Chickpeas

Chickpeas are an excellent source of calcium.

Grains like finger millet (ragi), amaranth (rajgira) and quinoa are very high in calcium.

Crush or grind seeds (like sunflower and sesame seeds) to increase calcium absorption.

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH OXALATES?

Oxalates are natural substances that bind naturally to calcium and hinder their absorption. See the list of oxalate-rich foods HERE.

Dark leafy greens are excellent sources of calcium and Vitamin K, as well as plant-based Vitamin A sans retinol. Leafy greens in general have oxalates, but some have more than the others – like taro (colocasia) leaf, spinach, swiss chard, beet greens and collards. Some nuts are high in oxalates – like almonds, peanuts and cashews.

While these greens and nuts may not be absorbed as readily as foods not high in oxalates, they may not have a negative impact on calcium absorption as they themselves are rich in calcium. Plus greens like spinach and swiss chard are rich in Vitamin K, folates and in Vitamin A that is not retinol-based.

High in oxalates: taro / arvi / colocasia leaf

To get the maximum calcium bang for your buck, focus on greens low in oxalates like kale, romaine lettuce, turnip greens, and nuts like chestnuts, brazil nuts and hazelnuts.

Also note that the leaves of a plant almost always contain higher oxalate levels than the roots, stems, and stalks. Tea and chocolate are high in oxalates, so milk with tea or cocoa will deliver less calcium to your body than plain milk. Bummer.

What about raspberry icecream?

Berries are very high in oxalates, so raspberries reduce the calcium absorption of dairy. That’s seriously screwed up, ‘cos the idea of guzzling plain cow juice is just morbid. Well, berries are rich in antioxidants and other nutrients, so we’ll trade those for the calcium.

WHAT ELSE DO I NEED TO KNOW? **yawwn**

I

Exercise. It builds not only muscle, but bone strength and bone mass. (Recommended exercises for osteoperosis prevention)

II

The foundation of bone strength and bone mass is laid early in life. Children and adolescents need exercise, calcium and an adequate supply of the required vitamins and minerals to prevent early bone loss.

III

Cut down dairy to one or two servings a day, and make it low-fat.

IV

Eat a lot of dark green leafy vegetables. They are high in calcium and also provide Vitamin K, which is vital to bone health.

A calcium-rich vegan stew …

V

Get plenty of Vitamin D through sunlight and supplements.

Look for a multivitamin that supplies 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day. If your multi only has 400 IU of vitamin D, consider taking an extra supplement to get you up to 1,000 IU or 2,000 IU per day. Some people may need 3,000 or 4,000 IU per day for adequate blood levels, particularly if they have darker skin, spend winters in the northern U.S., or have little exposure to direct sunlight. If you fall into these groups, ask your physician to order a blood test for vitamin D. (Source)

VI

Cut sodium intake. Salt hinders calcium absorption.

VII

Increase potassium intake. (Dietary sources of potassium)

VIII

Reduce caffeine, and do not consume it at mealtimes.

IX

Watch where your Vitamin A comes from. Retinol-based Vitamin A from meat harms bones.

Get Vitamin A from beta-carotenes found in ‘orange’ produce (carrots, papaya, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, red and orange peppers) and dark leafy greens.

Papaya

Retinol is often added to fortify foods with Vitamin A. Read the labels on Vitamin A-fortified multivitamins and foods like milk, soymilk, breakfast cereals and energy bars. Try to cut back on those with retinol or related products – anything beginning with ‘retin’ or ‘palmitate’ (which is retinyl palmitate) – in the ingredient list. Get multivitamins with caretones instead of retinol.

Useful Links:
Sample vegan menus providing more than 1000 mg of calcium
Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium
Harvard School of Public Health
Disease Proof
Diet and Bone Health

- The Jugalbandits

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32 Comments

  1. Uma says:

    Wow, so many ways to get calcium. Thanks for the elaborate information. Am I following all that? I don’t know, I’ll try to!

  2. sonia says:

    B&J,

    Great post! You do a great service to your readers. One of my ex-roommate often asks me questions about food and nutrition and I frequently direct her to your blog.

    Each time I read about the subtleties of nutrition I feel that nature has created everything to promote balance: balanced life and balanced diet. Oxalate and tannins are just some examples of how we should eat everything in limited quantities or else they do more harm to us than good. However, the food industry works at an entirely different frequency it seems. Creating hype about certain nutrients to accentuate sales encourage people top overdose on so many things that many of us have forgotten what balance means.

    I feel super special being the first one to drop a comment :-)

    Enjoy your days!

  3. sonia says:

    Oh Uma beat me to it!

  4. Mythili says:

    This is awesome, you guys. I do agree with Bee on the milk part. I stopped consumption of milk the first few years of my stay here in the US. There was something different in the “taste”. Now I go for Organic Valley 2%.
    Chickpeas and kale – here we come :)

    Thanks for the research guys !

  5. Asha says:

    Great post!
    My kids and I take a multi vitamin and a Calcium everyday, one in the morning and other in the evening. We love fat free milk and plain yogurt too, so that’s good!:)
    Love Kale and Spinach.

  6. Cham says:

    Wow, one stop learning about calcium, a year back, whe the doctor told me that i need more calcium intake… I digged on the net, i really appreciate the time u took to put all together …. Bookmarked for my perso reference. Thank u ! :)

  7. sreelu says:

    this is a good source of info, you always hear 2 sides of the story of every research they do. You make it sound much clear thaks Jai

  8. Wow, thank you guys, I am not a fan of dairy products and I definitely don’t take milk and yogurt except in the form of mor curry, I’m glad that I can indeed make do without them.

  9. Kalai says:

    Thanks so much for the info! Great to have so many calcium sources listed here.

  10. Suganya says:

    What? Lattes and ice-creams not good source of calcium. Sigh! And, I didn’t know about nigari in tofu. Will check for that going forward.

  11. richa says:

    true, high protein diet does leach calcium out of bones etc, per the Diamonds!
    But, low fat milk is not without it’s own controversy!

  12. Mamatha says:

    Thanks for this excellent post. Will watch out for the Nigari in Tofu – I always learn something new on your site. Btw, I’ve read that soy can increase the risk of breast cancer – is there any scientific evidence to substantiate this? We love our tofu and hope this is not true.

    http://jugalbandi.info/2007/02/to-soy-or-not-to-soy/

  13. Pelicano says:

    I love chickpeas! :-D

  14. sia says:

    u sound like mother asking me to drink milk, exercise and eat greens :P #sigh#

  15. swati raman says:

    yeahhhhh.. i agree to sia… but gits high time i accept it… ok ok … i have got something for u in my page…

  16. Pritya says:

    As usual, an informative and well researched post, but what has truly caught my attention are your pics. Awesome. That green leaf looks so stunning. But I am really curious now…you started by speaking about your dietary intake…howver, do tell me, have you changed and standadized your diet to increase calcium levels? what exactly are you doing, raspberry icecreams and all :) ?

    i don’t do anything special for calcium. i just stopped going to the doctor. :) – b.

  17. Deepika says:

    That was some research work you’ve done! The health benefits of milk have been overrated (refer my article http://recipe4deesaster.blogspot.com/2008/02/milky-way.html)

    One really important vegetarian source of calcium, even better than milk, that deserves mention is ragi (nachni), especially when sprouted. Ragi is said to contain about 344 mg of calcium per 100 mg.

    thanks, deepika. it’s good to know.

  18. Priya says:

    I read this post yesterday, and have been coming back to it since. These marketing guys have surely brainwashed us really well.
    I checked the labels on my Soy milk today and it has Vitamin A palmitate. I have seen only Silk soy milk in the stores, do you know of another brand I could look for ? Need to look into the tofu labels too. Thank you so much for giving us all this information in such a clear manner.

    every darn thing has palimitate or retinol-based products. in multivitamins, you may find a brand with carotene. also, with regard to soymilk, avoid the brands with carrageenan. http://jugalbandi.info/2007/02/to-soy-or-not-to-soy/

  19. Very recently I spoke to my doctor about this very topic. Here in Australia there has been a campaign for many years to get people to stay out of our very hot sun, and to cover up in summer (hats, long sleeves, etc). This is in an effort to reduce the incidence of skin cancer.

    But what has happened is that calcium deficiency and related problems have increased dramatically. We tested my Vit D level and it is WAY down. I am on supplements now, and lots of exercise in the sun. In winter, that is 30 mins per day in sleeveless clothes and in summer around 10 mins per day. Of course that is for Australia. For countries with less strong sunshine, it would be more.

  20. Priya says:

    Thanks for pointing me to that post Bee, I missed reading it before. Will check the other brands and like you said, will pay attention to their labels. These new chemicals are hard to remember for me and connect to the specific product and I end up getting confused reading the labels. Need to target them one at a time…
    By choosing the easier, more cheaper way to produce food, these companies are making us think twice (or more) about every day food needs like milk and rice and vegetables!

  21. smurfett says:

    You forgot to mention sesame seeds. It packs way more calcium in a little ounce than a similar ounce of milk. My mom’s a vegetarian and she adds a spoonful to her soymilk every morning.

  22. Divya says:

    Thanks for such valuable info Jai n Bee.

  23. Johanna says:

    thanks for this great info – but it depresses me to think that no matter what I do now, my childhood had such a great influence on my bones – hard enough to keep track of what I eat now without trying think about what I ate as a child – at least it was active enough!

  24. Purnima says:

    My kid has Soy Milk due to milk allergy, on reading this post, me n hub did find out that the brand we get here does contain Carrageenan under the category ‘Vegetable Gum 407′ which is the code for Carrageenan)
    The other brand uses gellan gum which is under E418.
    Thanks for the insight into this! We are firstly going to switch brands for our little one! Thanks again!

  25. Nirmala says:

    Thats fair enough! I was a classical dancer and had practiced it 2 hrs per day for continuous 6 years in my childhood and this says I don’t need to drink milk now. Thanks a lot. Should convey this to my mum!

  26. [...] posted recently about calcium. It is a timely post. One of the things essential for calcium absorption is Vitamin D. And Vitamin [...]

  27. dee says:

    I hate milk , I hate chickpeas .. I like tofu… I love greens , bellpeppers etc.. it depresses me though, that I never paid attention to such details.. I hope to do it going forward.

  28. Trupti says:

    Milk and Dairy IS overrated. Remember the hype between the consumption of dairy and weight loss? That was a dud.

    I get most of my calcium from greens,fortified juices and Oyster Shell Supplements. Thanks for the additional info.

  29. Sandeepa says:

    Thanks for the info, never paid attention to so many details !!!

  30. Bharti says:

    Nicely put together!

  31. Kumudha says:

    Wonderful article! Even in India, people feel that they can get calcium only if they consume lots of milk and milk products…

    Milk is just laden with horrible harmones these days

    http://www.indianexpress.com/res/web/pIe/ie/daily/19990409/ige09022.html

  32. PG says:

    that’s a very good collection of information on calcium. I also researched on it recently and now I came across yours by chance and see that yours does contain a few things which would surely be of help. Would like to link yours to my post at Healthy and Tasty. Thanks a lot!



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