Ask Ashley: Understanding Calcium

Celebrity expert dietitian Ashley Koff answers your questions on nutrition

Confusion about calcium is common. Here Koff answers OC reader questions about this vital mineral.

Can you suggest some alternative food sources other than dairy for calcium?
—Denise Farmer

Sure. Here are five of my preferred sources that include calcium naturally, rather than calcium added to a food or beverage:

    • Organic BroccoLeaf —the leaves of broccoli per serving have as much calcium as a glass of milk

    • Organic tofu

    • Wild-caught sardines

    • Sesame seeds

    • Organic greens: spinach, beet/mustard/turnip greens

My kids don’t drink milk because they don’t like it. They do eat a good amount of cheese. Do I need to worry about their calcium intake?
—Becky Beattie

I would worry more about your kids’ cheese intake, especially the quality of that cheese—truthfully. You see, there are nutrition mistakes made in the name of “getting enough” of a nutrient. See my list of foods that contain calcium naturally. Note that dairy—like cheese—must be organic and should be limited to one serving, maybe two, in a day. Note also that cheese can be pro-inflammatory, certainly isn’t detoxifying, and doesn’t contain antioxidants or essential fatty acids, which the other calcium-rich foods can contain. So the cheese is a great accessory, but it should be consumed for taste and enjoyment—not in the name of “enough calcium.”

I am confused about the relationship between calcium and magnesium. Can you clarify it?
—Samantha Lea

Happily. We need them both—for muscle and bone health especially—and they work in opposition to each other. This means that calcium is a “contraction enabler,” in that it helps muscles contract, and magnesium is a “relaxation enabler,” in that it helps muscles relax. Together they assist the natural push-pull that occurs when you lift something; they help keep bones strong too. Interestingly, they have another relationship, and that is in your body’s response to stress. When the body feels “stress” (good or bad), calcium pushes in and enters the cells; this is how we get a “stressed” (i.e., fight-or-flight) response triggered in the cells. With enough magnesium in your cells, the magnesium recognizes what is going on and pushes the calcium back out to turn down the stress response and restore calm. So if there is not enough magnesium compared to calcium, then the cells aren’t empowered enough to combat stress response.

Ashley Koff is an internationally renowned registered dietitian on a mission to improve the health of people across America and beyond through raising public awareness of the value of quality eating. Visit her site at: www.ashleykoffapproved.com