Keeping your bones strong is key to preventing osteoporosis, the bone loss that leads to poor posture, back pain, hip fracture, and many of the other problems that can sideline us as we age. Here, some sneaky tricks for working calcium into your diet and routine.
Calcium boosters #1 - #4: dairy, treats, cheese, fortification
1. Don't skimp on dairy.
As we get older, many of us forego milk. That's a big mistake, experts say. Unless you're lactose intolerant or vegan, including dairy in your diet is still the best way to maintain your calcium intake. The good news: The fat phobia many people associate with dairy products is misplaced. Nonfat and 2 percent milk actually contain more calcium than full-fat milk. And milk haters, don't despair -- yogurt, cheese, butter, and ice cream are all good calcium sources, too.
2. Cheat with treats.
Want a big surprise? Check the calcium content of that tasty frozen yogurt at your local shop. Typically, even commercially processed frozen yogurt contains 200 to 300 milligrams per cup -- less than regular yogurt (300 to 400 milligrams) but still impressive. An even more unexpected way to cheat: Make a cake, pudding, fudge, or other dessert using evaporated milk; one cup contains a whopping 660 milligrams of calcium.
3. Make some cheesy main dishes.
Don't limit your thinking to standard deli cheeses like jack, cheddar, and Swiss. Mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan -- all of which are easy add to casseroles, pasta, and other main dishes -- are excellent sources of calcium. Start your day by slipping some cheese into an omelette or scramble; end it right by sprinkling some on a frozen pizza just before taking it out of the oven.
4. Focus on fortification.
Calcium is such a key nutrient that many foods are now fortified to help boost calcium intake. Orange juice, breakfast cereals, soy milk, and any food labeled "calcium fortified" provide great ways to sneak calcium into your diet unnoticed.
Calcium boosters #5 - #8: soy, greens, supplements, vitamin D
5. Soak up the soy.
Here's a secret: Calcium-fortified soy milk actually has more calcium in it than milk -- up to 400 milligrams a cup. And recent studies show that the calcium in soy milk is as easily absorbed as that in regular milk. Sneak in more calcium by snacking on fresh or dried soybeans, too. Tofu is also calcium-rich: One half-cup serving contains 250 milligrams, which is 25 percent of your daily needs. For still more calcium, choose tofu that's preserved with calcium sulfate, making it an even better bone-builder.
6. Green your diet.
Kale, broccoli, lettuce, bok choy, cabbage, and other leafy greens are great sources of calcium. The problem is, the calcium in greens is not as easily absorbed as that in dairy if the greens contain naturally occuring substances called oxalates. Spinach, chard, and beet greens are higher in oxalates. It's not a big issue unless you're getting most of your calcium from nondairy sources. If so, try creating calcium-rich combinations, such as a spinach or lettuce salad topped with sesame seeds or beans (also good calcium sources) and cheese.
7. Make your calcium supplement a combo pill.
Having adequate magnesium stores is crucial for calcium absorption. In fact, research shows that high levels of calcium and low levels of magnesium can actually contribute to bone loss. Balance is key, too: Experts recommend a 2-to-1 ratio of calcium to magnesium. If you're taking 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day, you need 500 milligrams of magnesium. One more thing: Your body can only absorb about 500 milligrams of calcium at a time; it excretes the rest. So you're better off taking a calcium supplement in smaller doses twice a day, morning and evening. Calcium carbonate must be taken with meals, and you can take calcium citrate with or without food.
8. Accompany calcium with vitamin D.
Vitamin D is crucial to bone health, and it has a synergistic relationship with calcium. Research shows we lose 2 to 4 percent of our bone density during the winter due to vitamin D deficiency. To combat that, most experts now recommend getting 15 minutes a day of sunlight to help your body build vitamin D naturally, and taking at least 1,000 IUs (International Units) of vitamin D -- usually you'll need a separate supplement to get enough.
Calcium boosters #9 - #10: less caffeine, less protein
9. Cut down on coffee (or drink lattes).
Too much caffeine can weaken bones by increasing the rate of calcium excretion. Avoid this risk by limiting yourself to two cups a day. If you have trouble giving up extra cups of joe, you can mitigate the calcium loss by choosing a latte or café au lait or adding a few tablespoons of milk or cream (not nondairy creamer) to your coffee.
10. Beware of high-protein diets.
With all due respect to Mr. Atkins, diets high in animal protein can actually leach calcium from your bones. That's because protein is broken down into components that are acidic, and your body uses calcium to buffer them. If you eat a lot of red meat and eggs (in one to two meals per day), you're even more likely to need to boost your calcium intake.