What You Need To Know
- Calcium and vitamin D are both essential nutrients for good health.
- Calcium is optimized with the addition of other vitamins like K2 and minerals such as magnesium.
- There are some delicious ways to get these vital nutrients into your diet, including dark leafy greens, canned fish, and dairy.
By Sarah McColl
Peanut butter and jelly, Lennon and McCartney, Phineas and Ferb: Some things just go together. Nutrients are the same; some are at their best when they work together in the quest to fuel your body. One such pair is calcium and vitamin D. Read on for the lowdown on this couple, what they do and how they work best together.
When you hear “bone health,” calcium is probably one of the first things you think of. This mineral is also essential for our teeth, heart, muscles and nerves. Some studies suggest that calcium, along with vitamin D (we’ll get to that in a sec), may also help ward off cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure, though the Mayo Clinic calls the evidence about these health benefits inconclusive. Calcium is stored in our bones (and teeth) for use via our bloodstream, thus, it’s important to constantly restore calcium to our body.
Good Sources of Calcium
Most adults need about 1,000 mg of calcium, though the recommended daily allowance is dependent on age and gender. Our bodies don’t produce calcium, so one way to get the nutrient is to pile it on your plate. There are many delicious ways to get it into your daily diet (see the list below) but to reach your daily quota, you could have 1 cup of dark leafy green vegetables (about 200mg), 3 ounces of canned fish (about 200mg), 2 ounces of cheese (350mg) and 1 cup of milk (300mg). Hello tasty tuna melt lunch with a glass of milk!
A word on dairy: Experts are divided on the topic. Some whom we spoke with recommend nutrient-dense raw milk and others point to studies that suggest milk might not be so great. Many people are lactose intolerant, meaning they lack an enzyme that helps digest lactose, the sugar in milk. If you tolerate dairy well, feel free to include it.
Experts suggest chowing down on these 8 yummy types of foods that are rich in calcium and/or magnesium:
- Dark leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale, okra, bok choy and collard greens
- Dairy products, such as organic, hormone-free cheese, milk and yogurt
- Beans such as navy, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and great northern beans
- Canned fish, like sardines, salmon and tuna
- Seeds like sesame and chia
- Amaranth grain breads and cereals
Calcium’s Best Friends
In recent years, calcium supplements became somewhat controversial, when reports began to emerge claiming it might be bad for your heart. But it may be that calcium just needs its nutrient partners to work well. “I think that the missing link is vitamin K2,” says Dr. Dana Cohen, a New York-based internist, and a specialist in integrative medicine. Studies have shown a large percentage of the population is deficient in K2. (A three-year, double-blind, randomized clinical trial published in Osteoporosis International showed that K2 offered statistically significant protection against bone loss, while a second part of the study showed that it improves cardiovascular health.)
“The bottom line is that K2 is pulling calcium out of our arteries and putting it into our bones where we need it,” says Dr. Cohen. As a result, she recommends that her patients take 180mcg of K2 along with their vitamin D3 supplement.
The other nutrient that helps with calcium—and about a zillion other things—is magnesium, and it turns out many of us are deficient in this, too.
“It’s probably the single most important nutrient that we need for many, many reasons,” Dr. Cohen said. Most adults need somewhere between 300 and 400mg, depending on age and sex. Dig into magnesium-rich foods like dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocados, yogurt, and bananas. If you take a supplement, be sure to choose an easy-to-absorb form like magnesium glycinate.
Getting the right amount of calcium is important, but only if it’s used. Enter vitamin D, which is essential to our bodies’ ability to absorb and use calcium. Plus, “I cannot stress enough how important vitamin D is to our overall health,” says Dr. Scott Schreiber, a licensed dietitian in Delaware. “Low levels of vitamin D have been associated not only with osteoporosis and osteopenia, but also with heart disease, anemia, hypertension, depression, chronic pain, decreased immune system, skin diseases and much more.”
Good Sources of Vitamin D
The best source of vitamin D is about 20 minutes of morning sun exposure. But during winter in northern climes, when you’re trapped indoors, it can be tough to get enough that way. Same problem if SPF 50 is part of your regular routine (though that also has its benefits). Luckily, there are some good ways to get your D through diet.
“The best food sources are from wild-caught, cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna,” says Texas-based Clinical Nutritionist Shawna Kunselman. Canned fish, like sardines and wild-caught salmon are also a good source.
Looking for inspiration to get started? Combine power ingredients on one plate such as Whole30’s One-Pan Herb-Crusted Roasted Salmon With Roasted Broccoli Steak (below), or whip up a hearty main course bowl of greens and grains like our Black Rice with Tempeh, Broccoli and Kale.
One-Pan Herb-Crusted Roasted Salmon With Roasted Broccoli Steak
- ½ cup fresh basil leaves
- ½ cup fresh parsley leaves
- 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
- ¼ cup almond flour
- 2 salmon fillets (6 ounces each)
- 3 small heads broccoli with the stems attached (about 1 pound total)
- ½ cup sliced almonds, toasted
- Preheat the oven to 400°F. Combine the basil, parsley, 4 tablespoons of the oil, lemon juice, ½ teaspoon of the salt, ½ teaspoon of the pepper, and the lemon zest in a blender or food processor. Cover and pulse until smooth. Pour the herb mixture into a bowl and stir in the almond flour.
- Place the salmon fillets in a large roasting pan or on a rimmed baking sheet. Pack the herb mixture on the top of each fillet.
- Trim the broccoli stems to about 3 inches below the florets. Slice the broccoli heads lengthwise into 1-inch-thick slabs (two or three slabs per head), cutting from the bottom of the stems through the crown to preserve the shape of the broccoli. Brush both sides of each broccoli slice with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle with the remaining ½ teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper. Arrange the broccoli in a single layer in the pan around the salmon.
- Roast the broccoli and salmon for 25 minutes, until the salmon just barely starts to flake when pulled apart with a fork and the broccoli is lightly browned, turning the broccoli once halfway through roasting. Sprinkle the broccoli with the toasted almonds before serving.