Often the thoughts of dairy and milk occur when thinking of foods high in calcium. Calcium is important for maintaining strong bones, healthy blood vessels and blood pressure, and it can help combat insulin resistance. Fortunately for those who are lactose intolerant or those who choose not to consume animal products, there are other options for high calcium foods. Dark, leafy greens such as bok choy, kale, turnip greens, and seaweed contain calcium. Other calcium rich foods include white beans, dried figs, blackstrap molasses, black-eyed peas, almonds, oranges, sesame seeds, instant oatmeal, soy products such as soymilk and firm tofu, and Cheerios. Many of these foods may be combined or added to recipes. For those who are not following a vegan diet, sardines and the bones of canned salmon, which can be mashed up into the meat, are other options for foods high in calcium. Calcium supplements could also be taken. Additionally, vitamin D should be taken to help the body absorb calcium.1 The benefit of eating dairy products for calcium is that the body absorbs the calcium nutrients more easily from cheese or milk than it does when the source is a plant. Harder cheeses that have been aged tend to be lower in lactose. However, cheese is also high in fat and calories, so intake should be monitored. Yogurt contains probiotic bacteria as well as calcium. Both goat’s and cow’s milk contain calcium.2
The Effects of Calcium Deficiency
Calcium deficiency disease is also known as hypocalcemia. As the body ages, it may naturally develop hypocalcemia due to the thinning and loss of density of the bones in which calcium is stored. Calcium intake should be increased with age because of this, as calcium deficiency disease contributes to the increase in chance of osteoporosis. Females should increase their calcium intake sooner than males, especially as they approach menopause. Early signs of calcium deficiency may not be present, while later, more severe symptoms consist of memory loss, spasms and cramps in the muscles, depression, numbness and tingling in extremities and face, hallucinations, brittle nails, and osteoporosis. A doctor can diagnose hypocalcemia with a blood test to check if the blood contains below normal calcium levels. The average adult should have somewhere between 8.8 and 10.4 milligrams per deciliter of blood while a child normally has higher levels.3 Osteoporosis is a disease that causes brittleness in bones by slowing down the creation of new bone cells as the old cells continue to break down at a normal rate. The bones may become so weak that even mild stress, such as coughing, causes a fracture. Calcium helps fortify bones against osteoporosis.4 The best way to treat calcium deficiency, under direction from a doctor, is to add more calcium to the diet with foods high in calcium and calcium supplements. Regular calcium injections may be required if the dietary changes are not enough to combat the deficiency. The absorption of calcium can be aided by taking vitamin D, which is found in vitamin D-fortified foods and supplements as well as portobello mushrooms, eggs, salmon, and tuna.5
Is Too Much Calcium Bad?
Just as too little calcium is bad for the body, too much calcium also causes issues. Hypercalcemia actually inhibits the normal functions of calcium. Symptoms of excessive calcium intake include excessive thirst and urination, nausea, pain in the abdomen and bones, decreased appetite, constipation, muscle twitching and weakness, abnormal curvature in the bones, memory loss, and depression. Hypercalcemia is also especially dangerous for patients who have cancer. Causes of this condition are varied and may be hyperparathyroidism, an over-activity in the parathyroids’ regulation of calcium, lung diseases and cancers, side effects of medications like diuretics, taking too many supplements of vitamin D or calcium, and dehydration. As with hypocalcemia, hypercalcemia can be diagnosed with a blood test, and additional testing may be done to find out whether cancer or other diseases are the cause. There are easy ways to treat hypercalcemia with instructions from the doctor. If the condition persists despite dietary and medication adjustments, surgery could be performed to remove the overactive parathyroids. If a disease such as cancer is found to be the cause, other options will be presented.6
Other Ways to Strengthen Bones
In addition to consuming enough foods high in calcium, there are other actions the patient can take to maintaining strong bones. A study has shown that yoga could increase bone mineral density in the spine. Yoga helps build bone health in the hips, spine and wrists, which are areas that are most prone to fracturing. Different moves promote different areas of the body, which is why a well-varied yoga session is important. Performing yoga also helps the body learn strong balance and coordination, which can prevent falls. Tai chi, a series of slow, controlled movements also strengthens bones and coordination. The benefits come from doing 45 minute periods of tai chi for at least five days. Walking for at least four hours a week has been found to decrease the risk of hip fractures. It is a very popular and easy-to-do exercise because it could be done by almost anyone, anywhere.7
Find out what else you can do to prevent or treat osteoporosis.