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Surprising sources of calcium for bones

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Cheryle Jones Syracuse
Family and Consumer Science Staff
NC Cooperative Extension Service
Brunswick County Center

Drink your milk. This is a common command from moms and doctors. Both know that milk is a good source of calcium for healthy bones and teeth.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), about 99 percent of the calcium in our bodies is found in our bones and teeth. In addition to building and maintaining healthy bones, calcium allows blood to clot, nerves to send messages, muscles to contract and other body functions.
Each day our body uses and loses calcium through skin, nails, hair, sweat, urine and feces. The human body cannot make calcium; we need to get it from the foods we eat. When the diet does not have enough calcium for our body’s needs, calcium is taken from the bones.
How much calcium do you need? The NOF says children 1-3 years old should have 500 mg. of calcium each day. Children ages 4-8 should have 800 mg. daily and kids 9-18 years old (the age when they are really building their calcium stores for later in life) should have 1,300 mg. daily. Adult women and men 19-49 years old need 1,000 mg. and people older than 50 years of age should have 1,200 mg. each day.
Food remains the best source. Dairy products are high in calcium, thus the push to drink milk or eat other dairy products. But not everyone likes milk or can drink it. If you’re not a milk person, there are some other food sources of this important mineral. Some may surprise you.
Some green vegetables naturally have calcium in them. One cup of broccoli contains about 75 milligrams of calcium. Other vegetables sources are collards and turnip greens. There are 226 mg. of calcium in a cup of cooked collards and 197 mg. in a similar amount of cooked turnip greens.
For the record, an 8-ounce glass of 2 percent milk has about 297 mg. of calcium. So you’d have to eat about four cups of broccoli or a cup and one-half of greens to get the same amount of calcium as in a glass of milk.
A quick note here. You may be thinking about spinach. It’s a green leafy vegetable, but does it have calcium too? No, sorry. Spinach, rhubarb stalks and beet greens are examples of foods that are high in a substance called oxalate. Foods with high amounts of oxalate reduce your body’s ability to absorb calcium. While spinach, rhubarb and beet greens can be part of a healthy diet for other vitamins and minerals, they are not good sources of calcium.
Some other sources of calcium include seeds and nuts. One ounce (about 1/4 cup) of almonds has 75 milligrams of calcium. The same amount of sesame and sunflower seeds has 37 mg. and 33 mg., respectively.
Another surprising source: Figs. Ten dried figs provide 270 mg. of calcium, but use some care here, as they are also loaded with sugars. Those 10 figs provide about 477 calories. I checked the Nutrition Facts label on fig cookies. Yes, they do contain some calcium. Two Fig Newtons have 6 percent of the Daily Value of calcium. That’s about 60 mg. That’s not a great source, but it’s better than nothing and every little bit adds up.
There are also calcium-fortified foods and calcium supplements that are helpful for people who are unable to get enough calcium in their diets. Some fortified foods include: orange juice, breakfast foods, soymilk, cereals, snacks and breads. Even some bottled water has added calcium. Be sure to read the nutrition label to see if the brand or variety you purchase has calcium added.
So you ask, “Should I take a calcium supplement?” That really depends on how much calcium you are getting naturally in the foods you eat. This is something you should talk over with your medical professional. Taking more calcium than you need in supplements does not have added benefits.
Calcium, whether from food or supplements, is best absorbed when taken in amounts of 500-600 mg. or less. Try to get your calcium-rich foods and/or supplements in smaller amounts throughout the day. Eating food produces stomach acids that help your body absorb calcium.
For more information, contact the Brunswick County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service at 253-2610. Additional facts can be found on the National Osteoporosis Foundation’s website at www.NOF.org.