by Emma Needleman
Most people think that to protect your bones, you’ve simply got to get enough calcium—specifically by drinking your milk. But the truth isn’t that simple: Americans, for their part, get about 70 percent of their total calcium intake from dairy products, but we’ve also got some of the world’s highest osteoporosis rates.
In fact, studies increasingly show that higher dairy consumption is actually associated with increased risk for broken bones. And, on the heels of a new study that shows calcium and Vitamin D supplements don’t do much to increase bone density, the science increasingly shows that our old habits aren’t cutting it when it comes to protecting our bones. And while you do need calcium, you also need to consume it in a way that allows for the best possible absorption into your bones.
Let’s start with the dairy issue. Consuming dairy products is more or less a Western habit—in Asia and Africa, dairy is generally not part of the diet. Instead, people get their calcium from vegetables, at much lower levels than our recommended average of 1,200 mg a day. But since vegetables have higher levels of magnesium—which your bones need to absorb calcium—people living in these countries tend to have lower rates of broken bones and fractures. In diets where fruit and vegetables are the primary sources of calcium, your body will take in calcium and magnesium in a ratio of about 1:1. In diets where dairy is the primary source of calcium, the ration is more like 12:1.
Reducing the amount of meat in your diet can also help protect your bones. Protein is important for building strong bones, but excessive meat consumption can create higher levels of acid in the blood and urine, which the body then tries to regulate by releasing calcium. You don’t have to become completely vegetarian, but reducing the amount of meat you eat and replacing it with vegetables or other forms of protein will certainly be beneficial to your skeleton.
So how can you get calcium without swigging milk or taking supplements? Here are 5 of the best natural sources of calcium for healthy bones.
Collard Greens. Leafy green vegetables are one of the most healthful sources of calcium and magnesium. One cup of boiled collards contains a whopping 358 milligrams. Kale, broccoli, Swiss chard, bok choy and turnip greens are full of calcium, too. The one exception is spinach, which has a high concentration of oxalate, making it difficult for the body to absorb calcium.
Baked beans. Beans in general are a great source of calcium, as well as a hearty non-animal protein. One serving of baked beans contains over 100 milligrams of calcium. Navy beans, white beans and garbanzos are also full of calcium and magnesium, as are soybean products like tofu.
Oatmeal. Surprisingly, two packets of instant oatmeal contains between 100-150 mg of calcium, and more magnesium than a cup of collard greens. Quinoa is another calcium-rich grain. Try either for a healthy breakfast.
Sesame seeds. Just one tablespoon of sesame seeds contains about 88 milligrams of calcium, and about a third of the daily value for magnesium. Make sure to buy the unhulled kind, though, as it’s the seed’s hull (outer shell) that contains most of the nutrients. Try grinding themup like flax seeds and adding to breakfast cereal or soups and salads.
Almonds. Almonds are a nutritional powerhouse, providing a dense source of protein and fiber, along with calcium and other minerals necessary for building strong bones. Just one serving has 750 milligrams of calcium. Almonds, plain or mixed with dried fruit, make great snacks by themselves, or try replacing your jar of peanut butter with nutrient-rich almond butter.
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