If you’ve been following me for some time or listened to any of my presentations on nutrition, then you know my thoughts on dairy. I don’t believe it is the health food that we’ve made it out to be, especially the way it is currently processed and sold (but that’s another topic for another day!). Because I choose not to recommend dairy to most people, I get a lot of questions regarding calcium.
Contrary to popular belief, you do NOT have to eat dairy to get adequate amounts of calcium in the diet. Instead, you can get calcium and its important cofactors from a variety of other, more nutrient-rich foods, which is what we are going to explore today.
What is calcium?
Calcium is used in forming bones yes, but it is also used for numerous other processes within the cells in our bodies including neurotransmitter release and muscle contraction.
Where can we find calcium in food besides dairy?
Of course, I’ll mention several vegetables here, as there are some studies that show that we absorb more of the calcium from vegetables than from dairy (especially if we are choosing conventional, pasteurized low fat or fat free dairy). Vegetables and fruits rich in calcium include:
Dark green vegetables
Other dietary sources of calcium include nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds or tahini) and any seafood that contains the bones (salmon or sardines come to mind).
What else is required for calcium absorption?
Eating great sources of calcium and actually absorbing that calcium are two separate topics. You can eat or take all the calcium supplements that you want, but if the other cofactors involved in calcium absorption are not present, you are doing yourself a disservice!
To adequately absorb the calcium from the foods you are eating, you also need bioavailable sources of vitamins A, D, and K2. Notice I said bioavailable – this means that you are getting these nutrients from foods that are rich sources of these nutrients, not from a supplement or enriched food where the vitamins have been artificially added. The ideal source for vitamin D is obviously the sun, which I do recommend getting some unprotected sun exposure for 5-15 minutes per day on most days. Vitamin A is most richly found in liver and eggs. Beta-carotene, the precursor form of vitamin A, is rich in orange colored vegetables. This is not the vitamin A I’m talking about – the body has to go through quite a conversion process to take beta-carotene to preformed vitamin A. Vitamin K2 is found in grass-fed dairy fats like butter or ghee, fermented vegetables like raw sauerkraut, and poultry liver (liver is a common theme here…a true superfood!).
Magnesium is another mineral that is crucial for calcium absorption and bone health, as well as more than 300 other enzyme functions in the body. Foods rich in magnesium include green vegetables, nuts and seeds, fish, and avocados (yay!).
What about bone health in general?
When it comes to protecting your bones and preventing osteoporosis from forming or progressing, we need to focus on more than just calcium and the nutrients mentioned above. There are more than 20 micronutrients that are important for bone health including boron, collagen, copper, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, and so many others.
I want to take a second to talk about collagen with regards to bone health. Collagen is one of the most abundant proteins in the body and makes up the majority of the protein in bones. It is also important for gut, skin, hair, and joint health as well, which is why I recommend people either eat organ meat, seafood, and bone broth on a regular basis or take it in supplement form from Vital Proteins. I like their quality of collagen peptides, found in the blue lid container.
Another factor with bone health is exercise and weight-bearing exercise. Weight-bearing exercises can include weight or can involve simply moving your body weight (like walking). Obviously, as a personal trainer, I prefer everyone to do some form of strength training exercises on a weekly basis to help stress and build not only muscle, but also bone strength as well.
As talked about previously on the blog, inflammation levels are at the root cause of most diseases, and bone health ailments fall into that category. Reducing inflammation from food, stress, too much or too little exercise, lack of sleep, and environmental toxins will go a long way in improving your bone health and overall health.
My final thoughts with calcium and bone health – eat real food, focusing on vegetables, seafood (occasionally with the bones), and organ meats. These are the true superfoods for bone health and will also have the other cofactors needed for calcium absorption. In addition to dietary changes, also making resistance training a regular part of your exercise routine will go a long way in protecting the health of your bones. The moral of the story – you don’t need to eat dairy for adequate calcium intake!