From childhood, we’re taught that calcium helps build strong bones. As we age, that calcium helps keep our bone health intact, especially for women. Calcium is crucial for women to help prevent bone loss, which increases the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures post-menopause. It’s not as simple as taking a supplement, though. Here we explore a woman’s relationship with calcium and the best ways to keep it in her diet.
Calcium for women is undeniably important.
Men, of course, need calcium, too. But it’s a bit more important for women. That’s because women tend to have smaller bones than men, so they’re more prone to osteoporosis. Plus, estrogen levels decrease during menopause, leaving bones less protected than before. Greater bone density before menopause can lower women’s odds of developing osteoporosis, and calcium is a known bone builder.
Not only is calcium important for bone health, but it also keeps organs and muscles functioning properly. A daily dose of calcium for women is crucial because bone matter is regularly broken down and rebuilt.
But women may need less calcium than the official recommendation.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 1,000 mg of calcium per day for women ages 19 to 50 and 1,200 mg of calcium per day for women 51 and older. However, some experts say that 500 to 700 mg of calcium per day for women is more ideal because recent studies found that a high intake of calcium didn’t reduce the risk of bone fracture.
Calcium supplements can increase health risks.
Put down the calcium pills or chews. Turns out that calcium supplements may increase the risk of kidney stones and heart attack. “Calcium supplements have also been linked to hypothyroidism, Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer, fibrocystic breasts, ovarian cysts, and bone issues,” says Ariane Hundt, a clinical nutrition coach and fitness expert in New York City. They can also cause constipation, bloating, and gas and can interact with certain medications.
Supplements are regularly up for debate in the nutrition world, but most experts recommend forgoing them for a well-balanced, healthy diet. So, it’s more beneficial to get your calcium through the foods you eat. It’s not as hard or time-consuming as it seems. Six ounces of yogurt, for example, can contain 310 mg of calcium, which puts you about halfway toward that toned-down daily recommendation.
You can get calcium from veggies and bone-in seafood.
Whether you have a lactose intolerance or simply don’t love dairy, there’s good news. Plenty of nondairy foods not only contain calcium but are also excellent sources of it. “Foods high in calcium in its most bioavailable form are collard greens, broccoli, kale, bok choy, and sardines, salmon, and shrimp—all canned and with the bones,” Hundt says.
In fact, those foods have more calcium than you may realize. For example, a three-ounce serving of canned sardines with bones has a similar amount of calcium (325 mg) as a four-ounce serving of part-skim ricotta (335 mg). An eight-ounce serving of frozen collard greens has a similar amount as well (360 mg). Fortified almond milk, rice milk, or soy milk provides about 300 mg of calcium, depending on the brand and type.
Here’s a list of calcium-rich foods and their approximate calcium content per serving, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Fruits and Vegetables:
- Collard greens, frozen, 8 ounces: 360 mg
- Broccoli rabe, 8 ounces: 200 mg
- Kale, frozen, 8 ounces: 180 mg
- Soybeans, green, boiled, 8 ounces: 175 mg
- Bok choy, cooked, boiled, 8 ounces: 160 mg
- Figs, dried, 2 whole: 65 mg
- Broccoli, fresh, cooked, 8 ounces: 60 mg
- Oranges, 1 whole: 55 mg
- Sardines, canned with bones, 3 ounces: 325 mg
- Salmon, canned with bones, 3 ounces: 180 mg
- Shrimp, canned, 3 ounces: 125 mg
- Ricotta, part-skim, 4 ounces: 335 mg
- Yogurt, plain, low-fat, 6 ounces: 310 mg
- Milk, skim, low-fat, whole, 8 ounces: 300 mg
- Yogurt with fruit, low-fat, 6 ounces: 260 mg
- Mozzarella, part-skim, 1 ounce: 210 mg
- Cheddar, 1 ounce: 205 mg
- Yogurt, Greek, 6 ounces: 200 mg
- American cheese, 1 ounce: 195 mg
- Feta, 4 ounces: 140 mg
- Almond milk, rice milk, or soy milk, fortified, 8 ounces: 300 mg
- Orange juice and other fruit juices, fortified, 8 ounces: 300 mg
- Tofu, prepared with calcium, 4 ounces: 205 mg
- Waffle, frozen, fortified, 2 pieces: 200 mg
- Oatmeal, fortified, 1 packet: 140 mg
- English muffin, fortified, 1 whole: 100 mg
- Cereal, fortified, 8 ounces: 100-1,000 mg
Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption.
“Vitamin D is important for calcium to be absorbed and used by the body,” Hundt says. Unlike with calcium, vitamin D supplements are totally fine to take. Taking 800 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily can help your body efficiently use the 500 to 700 mg of calcium you’re getting through your food.
There are other things you can do to prevent bone loss.
Beyond calcium and vitamin D, there are other things women can do to boost bone health and prevent osteoporosis.
- Stay physically active. “Bone health can be boosted with regular strength training,” Hundt says. Walking, running, jogging, climbing stairs, and other exercise can keep bones strong, too.
- Don’t smoke. Tobacco use has been linked to decreased bone density.
- Don’t binge drink. In one study, older women who drank more than three ounces of alcohol per day had greater bone loss than those who drank little to no alcohol.
- Eat leafy greens. “Vitamin K2 prevents calcification of the arteries and helps the calcium become part of the bone,” Hundt says. “K2 is found in leafy greens and fermented foods.”
- Eat healthy fats. “A proper intake of healthy fats is key, as low-fat diets have been found to reduce calcium absorption,” Hundt explains. Incorporate fatty fish, olive oil, avocados, and coconut oil into your diet.