When it comes to women’s health, there’s one nutrient that hardly gets the spotlight. Unlike ever-popular protein, magnesium, and fiber, this superstar mineral hardly gets the attention it deserves. Enter: calcium. But in our quest for female vitality and strength, calcium can’t be ignored. From supporting bone health to aiding in muscle function—as well as playing a crucial role in hormonal balance—calcium is key. With that in mind, do you need to gulp down gallons of milk? Fortunately, no. Calcium-rich foods run the gamut, and there’s no better time to look beyond the milk carton. Today, we’re sharing all the deets. Let’s give your bones a boost with these calcium packed alternatives.

Featured image by Michelle Nash.

Edie Horstman
  • Double-certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and Nutrition Consultant
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Edie is the founder of nutrition coaching business, Wellness with Edie. With her background and expertise, she specializes in women’s health, including fertility, hormone balance, and postpartum wellness.

Cow’s Milk for Calcium: Fact or Fiction?

“Got Milk?”—a phrase that takes most of us back to the early 90s, when a milk mustache was a badge of honor. But beyond the catchy slogan and celebrity endorsements, do those ads hold any truth? Are dairy products truly the best way to get your daily dose of calcium? Spoiler alert: cow’s milk isn’t your only option.

Without further ado, we’re breaking down the calcium conundrum. Get ready to discover a world of nutritious, calcium-rich foods. And if you thought calcium is only important for kids, think again! It’s particularly important as we age.

Image by Michelle Nash

Why do we need calcium?

Calcium is a vital mineral. And while it’s crucial for overall health, it also works in tandem with other nutrients (think: vitamin D) to optimize its absorption. This is akin to how iron and vitamin C work together. Ultimately without calcium, we quickly lose homeostasis. To set the stage, below are key reasons why we need calcium and what it does:

1. Builds strong bones and teeth

Calcium is a fundamental building block for our skeletal system. It plays a crucial role in bone formation, growth, and maintenance. Adequate calcium intake is essential throughout our lives to support healthy bone density, prevent bone loss, and reduce the risk of conditions like osteoporosis and fractures. Additionally, calcium contributes to strong teeth! Hello, dental health and minimizing tooth decay.

2. Supports muscle function

Like magnesium, calcium is also involved in muscle contraction and relaxation. When a nerve signal triggers a muscle to contract, calcium ions are released, enabling the muscle fibers to contract and generate movement. Sufficient calcium levels ensure proper muscle function (including muscle tone).

3. Plays a vital role in nerve transmission

Without calcium, our nerve cells would lack communication. It assists in transmitting nerve impulses throughout the body, allowing signals to be sent between the brain, spinal cord, and various organs. This facilitates everything from sensory perception to motor control and more.

4. Essential for blood clotting

Did you know that calcium helps prevent excessive bleeding? When a blood vessel is injured, calcium assists in the formation of blood clots, sealing the damaged area and initiating the healing process.

5. Helps regulate hormones

If you’re trying to balance your hormones, make sure your calcium levels are normal. After all, this mineral helps regulate various hormones and enzymes within the body.

6. Aids in cell function

Last but not least, calcium plays a role in cell signaling (think: cell division, cell growth, DNA synthesis, etc.). In other words, it makes sure cells are communicating properly.

Image by Teal Thomsen

How much calcium do women need?

Unfortunately, studies show that many Americans aren’t getting enough calcium—particularly, women older women. Both men and women, ages 19-50, should aim for 1,000 mg of calcium per day. If you’re older than 51, chat with your healthcare provider about an appropriate dosage (likely, you’ll need at least 1,200 mg of calcium).

But while getting enough calcium is important, we also don’t want too much. Excess calcium can have consequences: constipation, kidney stones, kidney failure, heart function problems, and cognitive issues. When it comes to choosing the best calcium supplement, work with your doctor to find the right dosage.

Signs of Calcium Deficiency

Interestingly, early-stage calcium deficiency may not cause any noticeable symptoms. That said, as time goes on, symptoms will develop. Calcium deficiency disorders (osteoporosis, osteopenia, and hypocalcemia) can show up in many forms. For example, memory loss, muscle spasms, tingling in the hands and feet, hallucinations, weak and brittle nails, easy fracturing of bones, and more.  

Image by Belathée Photography

When does calcium start declining?

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but most of us reach peak bone mass between the ages of 25 and 30. By the time we reach 40, we slowly begin to lose bone mass. In the grand scheme of things, that’s early! Therefore, it’s critical to maintain an adequate intake of calcium-rich foods. But, are there other factors that contribute to declining calcium levels? Yes.

  1. Aging. As we age, bone remodeling slows down, and bone density can gradually decrease. This can lead to conditions such as osteopenia and osteoporosis, making older adults more susceptible to fractures and bone-related issues.
  2. Inadequate calcium intake. If you’re not eating enough calcium-rich foods, the body may compensate by drawing calcium from the bones to maintain proper blood calcium levels. Over time, this can contribute to decreased bone density.
  3. Menopause. During menopause, hormonal changes (specifically, a decline in estrogen levels), can accelerate bone loss. Estrogen helps protect bones by inhibiting bone breakdown, and its reduction during menopause can lead to increased bone turnover and calcium loss.
  4. Vitamin D deficiency. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D! It works alongside calcium for optimal utilization. In other words, vitamin D deficiency can impair calcium absorption.
Image by Michelle Nash

Calcium and Your Period

If you’re a menstruating woman, listen up. Calcium and your cycle are tightly interconnected. While calcium itself does not directly affect the onset or duration of periods, hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle can have an impact on calcium levels in the body.

For example, during the follicular phase (before ovulation), estrogen levels rise, which can enhance calcium absorption. Conversely, during the luteal phase (after ovulation), progesterone levels increase, which can inhibit calcium absorption. The takeaway? Up your calcium intake in the second half of your cycle. Oh, and if you want to alleviate PMS and menstrual cramps, make sure your calcium levels are optimal.

Image by Suruchi Avasthi

10 Foods High In Calcium

Whether you’re trying to support your hormones, heal after a bone-related injury, or simply increase your calcium stores, welcome. And as mentioned, there’s no need to down gallons of milk. Calcium is naturally present in many ingredients, including seeds, dark leafy greens, and seafood. The following foods have the highest levels of calcium.

Collard greens. An 8-ounce serving contains 360 mg of calcium. Enjoy them cooked in ghee or coconut oil as a healthy side dish.

Kale. An 8-ounce serving of fresh (or frozen) kale boasts 180 mg of calcium. Add kale to your favorite smoothie or massage it in extra-virgin olive oil to make it soft and palatable. Kale salads can be delicious, trust us.

Soybeans. One cup of soybeans contains 175 mg of calcium. Toss them into your favorite stir-fry or eat them steamed with sea salt and sesame oil. Opt for non-GMO soy, when possible.

Figs. Two figs, dried, contain 65 mg of calcium. They’re an energizing, grab-and-go snack for busy days.

Sardines—canned with bones. A 3-ounce contains 325 mg of calcium. An abundant source of calcium, try sardines on toast or sauté them into your favorite pasta dish.

Ricotta. A 4-ounce serving of ricotta contains 335 mg of calcium. Ricotta is delicious in baked goods, or use it to bulk up a tray of lasagna.

Plain yogurt. A 6-ounce serving of plain yogurt boasts 310 mg of calcium. Beyond a convenient breakfast, sub sour cream for yogurt in your favorite dips, sauces, and muffins (it will keep them moist!).

Poppy seeds. One tablespoon (9 grams) of poppy seeds packs 126 mg of calcium. ‘Tis the season for lemon poppy seed everything.

White beans. One cup of white beans contains roughly 180 mg of calcium. Try this feta salad with white beans and lemon relish.

Chia seeds. One ounce of chia seeds contains 179 mg of calcium. For an added dose of calcium, fiber, and healthy fats, sprinkle them on top of Greek yogurt bowls, use them as the base for chia pudding, or add a teaspoon to your favorite smoothie.

Image by Suruchi Avasthi

Lifestyle Habits to Improve Calcium Density

Along with a balanced diet, certain lifestyle habits can also significantly improve calcium density. For example, regular physical activity does wonders—particularly, weight-bearing exercises (jogging, weightlifting, etc.) because they stimulate bone formation. Additionally, exposure to sunlight is important because it aids in the production of vitamin D, which is essential for calcium absorption. When possible, get quality rest and avoid excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.

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