We all know calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth, but did you also know that it is used in the body to help regulate muscle contraction including the heart? It is used to help blood clot and plays a roll in the function of our hormones and enzymes – (1) a pretty essential mineral then!

A lack of calcium can lead to osteoporosis in later life, but also to rickets in children (2). So how do we make sure we get enough calcium in our diets to support our needs, and what else do we need to know?

Dairy as a source of Calcium

We all grew up with plenty of adverts telling us that dairy is the best source of calcium and certainly it is high in calcium, but a closer look tells us that it isn’t that simple. As a good friend and student in Naturopathic Nutrition, Vanessa Woozley of The Life Sutra, told me;

“Most people believe that drinking more milk will help with Calcium absorption, but as Western societies are drinking more dairy than any previous generation we are seeing increased rates of osteoporosis. The reality is that vitamins and minerals must work in synergy to support the bone health.”

So why is it that all this milk consumption doesn’t prevent osteoporosis?

First of all, we need to consider the source of the dairy. Most milk and milk containing products consumed today have been pasteurised and homogenised.  This process kills off harmful bacteria, but it also destroys or alters health promoting bacteria, enzymes, vitamins and minerals – meaning that minerals like Calcium are not so easily absorbed by the body or taken up and stored in the right places (bones and teeth) (3).

So when considering dairy milk and cheese as a source of calcium, we should remember that raw, unpasteurised and unhomogenised milk is far superior to pasteurised. A really useful table comparing the nutritional content of both raw and pasteurised milk can be found here. And an interesting discussion explaining the benefits of raw milk can be found here.

(As a side note, my family drink raw milk. The standards required for the welfare of the cows and the hygiene of the farm MUST be far higher to ensure that the milk is safe to consume in this way, and we have never had a problem. My personal opinion is that pasteurisation is necessary for the vast factory farms that pump out huge quantities of cheap milk. The price paid here is in the welfare of the cattle and the lack of nutrients in the milk that is produced, but that is a discussion for another time!)

Other factors to consider in the absorption of calcium

To enable calcium to be absorbed by the body, we also need magnesium and Vitamin D. The best source of vitamin D by far comes from skin exposure to sunlight – without sun creams that block the UV rays. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that you should be out in the sun all day without protection – sun burn causes a host of problems of its own, but a small amount of daily exposure should ensure ample vitamin D synthesis in the body – just be sensible about it!

There was a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2004, which showed that those deficient in vitamin D were only able to absorb 14% of the calcium in their diet, compared to 58% in those who had enough vitamin D.

Magnesium is also crucial because this activates the vitamin D in the body to absorb calcium. Without magnesium, you can consume all the calcium you like, but you will not affectively absorb it and it may end up being deposited in soft tissues where it can cause arthritis (4). A diet rich in nuts and whole grains such as millet, buckwheat and brown rice should ensure adequate magnesium intake, as long as refined sugar, alcohol and caffeine are limited, since these deplete the body of magnesium (5).

Many nuts and seeds and some leafy greens are a source of calcium, but they also contain oxalyic and phytic acid. This also needs to be considered because these can actually block the absorption of calcium and other minerals in the body. You can reduce the level of phytic acid by sprouting your nuts/seeds. See how here.

Good sources of calcium

Baring all the above points in mind, here is a list of some good sources of calcium, which also contain many other nutrients essential to the body;

  • Raw, organic dairy products
  • Fish with bones (tinned sardines contain lots of very soft bones and can be eaten whole).
  • Dark leafy greens such as Bok Choy, Kale and Broccoli, (note that Spinach contains quite a lot of calcium but it is also high in oxalates and phytic acid, so it is less bioavailable).
  • Chia seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Almonds (sprouted)
  • Blackstrap molasses

To conclude, I think that eating a good natural diet, (preferably organic), rich in a variety of food groups, (with minimal processed and refined foods), should give you the minerals your body needs to support itself. Given the challenges of what is marketed and cheaply available to us, we must be mindful that eating foods closest to their natural state as possible is probably best.

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