Sure, the USDA puts baked herring at the top of the list of calcium-rich food. But who knows a good recipe for that? And instant chocolate pudding is pretty high on the list -- but is that really the best nutritional advice if you're watching your weight?
So to give you a hand at getting the biggest bang for your calcium buck, WebMD put together 12 calcium-rich foods that are easy to add your diet. Try a splash of one and a pinch of another in your meals. And when you're browsing for new recipes, look for these calcium super-foods as your main ingredient.
Hidden Benefits of Calcium Rich Foods
But wait! Before you start munching your way to stronger bones you need to ask: How much calcium do I need, anyway?
Though experts haven't yet agreed on the ideal amount for people with osteoporosis, your doctor may advise up to 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day. "With osteoporosis, the general advice is to take three doses of 500 milligrams of elemental calcium a day," says Paul Mystkowski, MD, an endocrinologist at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, and clinical faculty member at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Why three separate doses? Because 500 milligrams is all your body can absorb at one time. So for strong bones, get your calcium throughout the day via your meals, then, if necessary, add a calcium supplement to make up the difference.
And remember: Calcium-rich foods do more than build strong bones. Calcium can boost the effects of osteoporosis drugs you may be taking to reduce bone loss, such as estrogen and bisphosphonates. And calcium also amplifies the benefits of weight-bearing exercise in building strong bones.
Breakfasts for Strong Bones
Fortunately, grocery shelves are bursting with calcium-rich foods for breakfast. The amount of calcium can vary wildly from one brand to another, so read food labels closely and compare different brands.
Some cereals, for instance, can give you half of the calcium you need all day. Have a cup of fortified cereal with milk and a glass of calcium-fortified orange juice, and you may satisfy your calcium needs before lunch.
Even if you're lactose-intolerant and don't digest milk well, you can find plenty of dairy products these days that are lactose-reduced or lactose-free. Just check the labels on milk, cheese, and yogurt, and try the health-food store if larger supermarkets don't carry enough choices.
Suppers for Strong Bones
If cereal's not your thing -- or you'd rather spread your calcium across the day for better absorption -- try adding a few calcium-rich foods to your dinner or lunch. Make an omelet with a bit of cheddar cheese, sautéed greens, and salmon. Or whip up a scrambled-egg stir-fry by adding Swiss cheese, broccoli, and sardines to your eggs, and you've got a lunch for strong bones. If you like soups and stews, try adding salmon, kale, or turnip greens to your other favorite recipes.
Just as your bones store calcium, fish bones do, too. Those tiny bones in canned fish like sardines and salmon hold high levels of calcium, so be sure to eat those, too.
How to Find Calcium-Rich Foods
Try this trick to help you decipher the food labels and "Nutrition Facts" you now see on packaged foods.
The calcium amounts you'll see listed are percentages, based on the standard of 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day. So to figure out how much calcium you're actually getting in each serving, it's easy. Just add a zero to the percentage of calcium you see on the label to convert it to actual milligrams (mg). So, for example, if a cereal box says "Calcium: 50%," then that cereal has 500 milligrams of calcium in each serving.
Bone Health and Vitamin D
The experts all agree: Don't forget your vitamin D. You need it to absorb the calcium from all those calcium-rich foods.
Your skin normally makes vitamin D from sunlight. "But as people age," says Mystkowski, "their skin doesn't convert vitamin D as well." So while the standard recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults is 400 IU of vitamin D, he advises taking even more when bone loss is a problem.
"I'd say most people with osteoporosis should be on 800 IU a day," says Mystkowski. And he advises even higher doses -- up to 1,200 IU of vitamin D a day -- if you have bone thinning and live in a climate without much sun. People with darker skin or who live in cities with intense air pollution absorb less vitamin D from sun, and may want to bump up their vitamin D, too.
Calcium-rich foods are often high in vitamin D. Sardines, herring, and salmon have high levels of vitamin D, and many calcium-enriched foods have vitamin D added. And it's an easy vitamin to supplement. "Vitamin D is a little bit easier to absorb, so you can usually get away with taking supplements once a day," says Mystkowski.