Calcium: How Much Do You Need and Where Can You Get It?

First Things First: Are You Getting Enough?

Are you under 30? If the answer is yes, you’re in the only season of you life when your body is able to build up the calcium bank in your bones.

After the big 3-0, you start to withdraw calcium from that bank.

The less you have stored, the greater your risk for developing osteopenia or osteoporosis later in life.

Not to mention your bones are weaker and more prone to fracture. 

Past 30 already? Adequate calcium intake is still important!

Aside from bone health, calcium is involved in muscle function, nerve transmission, cell communication, and hormone secretion.

So it’s obviously important. Now that we’ve established that, how much do you need?

If you are between the ages of 14 and 50, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) is 1000 mg.

What Does That Look Like in Food?

In general, it’s recommended that you consume 3 servings of dairy daily.

But here’s where it gets tricky:  a standard serving of cheese or yogurt does not have as much calcium as an 8oz glass of milk.

So you actually need 3 servings of dairy equivalents (how much of a non-milk food you need to eat to get as much calcium as a glass of milk) per day to get 1000 mg of calcium. Dairy equivalents are serving sizes that stack up to milk when it comes to calcium content.

And here they are:

  • 1 cup of milk (8 oz)
  • 8 oz yogurt
  • 1.5 oz or ⅓ c hard cheese (mozzarella, cheddar, etc)
  • 2 oz processed cheese (American)
  • ½ cup ricotta
  • 2 cups cottage cheese (so freakin much)
  • 1.5 cups ice cream

As you can see, not all dairy is created equal. You have to eat a butt ton of cottage cheese to get the same amount of calcium that is in a glass of milk or 1.5 oz of cheddar.

If you think 2 cups of cottage cheese is a lot thought, just wait till we talk about non-dairy sources of calcium.

What About Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium?

If you’re vegan, lactose-intolerant, allergic to cow’s milk protein, or not a dairy fan, rest assured that you can meet still meet your calcium needs without taking a supplement. Is it easy? Not necessarily. But it is 100% doable.

Here are a few dairy equivalents for non-dairy foods:

  • 3 cups fresh cooked kale 
  • 14 cups raw kale
  • 1.5 cups boiled turnip greens
  • 6 oz canned pink salmon with bones (if not vegan)
  • 1.5 cups black beans
  • 8 cups raw broccoli

I don’t know what you think of these numbers, but aside from the salmon and turnip greens, they sound like an absolute ton of green stuff to consume.

Could you do it? Yes. But I think a more realistic option is bringing in the fortified foods.

Calcium-Fortified Foods

If 42 cups of raw kale a day doesn’t sound amazing to you, rest assured that there are several foods fortified with calcium to help you out! Many breakfast cereals, bread products, plant based milks, and even orange juice are fortified with calcium.

Here are some examples:

  • 8 oz fortified orange juice
  • ½ cup tofu made with calcium sulfate
  • ⅓- 1 cup ready to eat cereal (depending on type and brand)
  • 8 oz most plant-based milk (not all so check the label)
  • ~1 cup of coconut yogurt (depending on the brand)

These are just a few of the options out there. Some plant based milks (like some almond milks) have 50% more calcium than cow’s milk (~450 mg/cup).

Tying it all Together

First do a quick inventory on your typical eating and estimate how many dairy equivalents you think you get a day. You can check out the labels of the foods you commonly eat and see how close you get to your goal 1000 mg per day (if you’re a human between the ages of 14 and 50). Also don’t forget that the nutrients on the label are based on the serving size.

If it turns out you need to be eating more calcium-rich foods, try to make a plan to get one more dairy-equivalent either daily or a certain number of days per week (try to be realistic and remember that you can and will continue to work up to 3 servings per day).

Think through calcium-rich foods you enjoy or recipes you could use those ingredients in. Enjoying the food you eat is just as important as getting in that calcium, so don’t just force yourself to meet your quota.

And remember that it’s a process! You’re much more likely to be successful in meeting your calcium needs if you make small sustainable changes over time vs trying to go from zero to sixty.

Published by Chiara

I’m a rock climber and registered dietitian teaching fellow climbers to become the strongest and happiest versions of themselves with evidence-based fueling strategies and by making peace with food.

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