Calcium is essential for athletes! Use our printable high-calcium foods chart to make sure you are getting enough!
This mineral builds strong bones, initiates muscle contraction, and more. If you don’t eat enough of it your body will take the calcium from your bones.
Keep reading to learn the benefits of calcium and to see if you are eating enough! Then, dive into our printable high-calcium foods chart featuring dairy, plant-based, fortified, and non-dairy calcium options.
We’ll review an athlete’s specific calcium needs, explore the impact of the loss of menstruation on bone health and calcium absorption, and share why natural calcium-rich foods often outweigh supplements.
Lastly, we will give easy, actionable tips to increase the calcium in your diet today to prevent injury and promote longevity in sport!
Table of Contents
Role of Calcium
Calcium is an important mineral responsible for:
- Building and maintaining healthy bones and teeth
- Facilitating muscle contractions and nerve transmission
- Blood clotting and wound healing
- Regulating cellular processes and signaling
- Aiding hormone and enzyme release
- Maintaining normal blood pressure
- Contributing to overall organ function and health
Calcium for mental health
Recent research supports that calcium may even be linked to improved mental health. A study of >1200 college students found that higher intakes of calcium and dairy were associated with lower stress and higher positive mood.
We are losing calcium every day through sweat, urine, feces, hair, and nails. Check out our printable high-calcium foods chart to make sure you’re eating enough calcium!
Underfueling and osteoporosis
When we don’t eat enough calcium, our body takes it from our bones to continue with its normal functions, weakening our bones in the process.
This leads to osteoporosis which is characterized by a loss of bone density. This causes light, weak, fragile bones susceptible to breaks and fractures.
The difficulty with osteoporosis is that it’s a “silent disease” because it is typically present without symptoms.
It is even more difficult for female athletes with amenorrhea (a loss of menstruation) to build strong bones. When estrogen levels are low, calcium is not as easily absorbed from the bloodstream to build and strengthen bones (1).
Loss of menstruation is associated with undernutrition and can cause a loss of bone density at a rate of 2.5% per year (2)!
A loss of period puts female athletes at a higher risk for stress fractures and osteoporosis; it is never okay to lose your period NO MATTER HOW FIT YOU ARE!
Tests to check bone health
The gold standard for checking bone health and bone density is a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) scan, often referred to as a DEXA scan.
This test will have individuals lay still on a table for 10-20 minutes to measure bone density.
We recommend elite athletes have DEXA scans annually to monitor bone mass trends. Contact your healthcare providers to see if a DEXA scan may be necessary for you.
This is a more accurate way to check on bone health, blood tests do not pick up on bone loss.
Symptoms of calcium deficiency
Here are symptoms of calcium deficiency to keep an eye out for:
- Muscle cramps
- Tingling and numbness
- Weak and brittle nails
- Tooth decay and gum problems
- Fatigue and weakness
- Osteoporosis or brittle bones
- Poor blood clotting
If you experience any of these symptoms. Consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.
We recommend athletes who experience muscle cramps consume at least two servings of calcium-rich foods twice daily to rule out a calcium deficiency as the culprit.
Check out the table for the dietary reference intakes for calcium from the Institute of Medicine to see what your daily calcium intake should be (3).
|1-3 years||700 mg|
|4-8 years||1000 mg|
|9-18 years||1300 mg|
|Women and men 19-50 years||1000 mg|
|Men >70||1200 mg|
|Women >50 years (postmenopause)||1200 mg|
|Amenorrheic athletes||1200 mg|
|Pregnant or breastfeeding||1000-1300 mg|
Please note that as you age, you need more calcium.
Keep reading to learn what you should eat to boost the calcium in your diet.
Calcium-rich foods: understanding the food label
We will review both dairy and plant-based sources of calcium, including foods with fortified calcium using standard portions and serving sizes.
Click here to sign up for our complete printable high-calcium foods chart before checking out the details below!
Dairy foods rich in calcium
|Dairy Food||Serving||Calcium Content (mg)|
|Evaporated milk||8 oz||660|
|Plain yogurt||8 oz (1 cup)||415|
|Nonfat milk||8 oz||305|
|Kefir (plain)||8 oz||300|
|Reduced fat milk||8 oz||285|
|Whole milk||8 oz||275|
|Dry milk||¼ cup||210|
|Pudding (made with milk)||½ cup||155|
|Greek yogurt (plain)||8 oz (1 cup)||115|
|Frozen yogurt||½ cup||105|
|Ice cream||½ cup||85|
|Chocolate||1.5 oz bar||85|
|Cottage cheese (low-fat)||½ cup||80|
Although the dairy industry is often demonized, cow’s milk remains a great source of calcium, fat, and protein.
Dairy milk is a much better source of calcium than almond milk and oat milk. If you are lactose intolerant try lactose-free milk which has ~300 mg of calcium per 8 oz or soymilk fortified with calcium.
Cheese highest in calcium
Here are cheeses ranked high to low in calcium content. Note that the portion varies.
|Cheese Type||Serving||Calcium content (mg)|
|Ricotta cheese (part-skim)||½ cup||335|
|Provolone, Jack, & Swiss||1 oz||220|
|Cheddar, Mozzarella, Muenster||1 oz||205|
|American cheese||1 oz||160|
|Feta & Blue cheese||1 oz||145|
|Parmesan cheese||2 tbsp||110|
Some individuals with lactose intolerance may tolerate lower lactose cheeses such as ricotta, Swiss, Parmesan, Cheddar, and Monterey Jack cheese.
Non-dairy sources of calcium
|Source||Serving||Calcium content (mg)|
|Sardines, canned with bones||3 oz||325|
|Tofu with calcium sulfate or calcium lactate||½ cup||215|
|Salmon, canned with bones||3 oz||180|
|White beans, canned||½ cup||95|
|Sesame seeds||1 tablespoon||90|
|Clams, canned||3 oz||80|
|Blackstrap molasses||2 tablespoons||80|
|Chia seeds||1 tablespoon||80|
Calcium-rich fruits and vegetables
|Source||Serving||Calcium content (mg)|
|Collard greens||½ cup||135|
|Dried figs||5 each||135|
|Turnip greens or bok choy||½ cup||100|
|Kale, frozen||½ cup||90|
|Kale, raw||1 cup||90|
|Broccoli cooked||½ cup||30|
Many dark leafy greens are rich in calcium. However, they also contain high levels of oxalic acid. This compound binds to calcium and decreases the absorption.
Spinach is high in calcium but also high in oxalate. It is estimated that <5% of the calcium content of spinach is absorbed (4).
Leafy greens are also rich in vitamin K and oranges are rich in vitamin C so although they may not contain more calcium than a glass of milk they provide other vitamins necessary for good health.
|Calcium Fortified Food||Serving||Calcium content (mg)|
|Soy or Rice milk||8 oz||300-370|
|Cereal bar (fortified)||1 bar||300|
|Orange juice||½ cup||175|
|Waffle, 4”||1 each||100|
|Bagel 4”||1 each||80|
Eat cereals with or without milk to add a little calcium and carbohydrates to your diet throughout the day.
Tips for boosting calcium in your diet
- Enjoy chocolate milk post-workout
- Make smoothies using kefir, milk, or calcium-fortified orange juice as the base
- Add milk or dry milk to your coffee instead of cream
- Add cheese to sandwiches, wraps, or salads
- Snack on an orange, almonds, and a piece of cheese
- Add tofu fortified with calcium sulfate to stir-fry meals and soups
- Enjoy crackers with canned salmon or sardines
- Prepare pudding with milk for dessert
- Incorporate more leafy green vegetables like swiss chard, bok choy, or kale weekly
- Consume a glass of milk or fortified soy milk with your meals
- Use our printable high-calcium foods chart to guide to help you to make sure you’re eating enough calcium!
Factors that can limit calcium absorption
Here are several factors that can impact calcium absorption:
- Oxalic acid: found in leafy greens, binds to calcium and decreases the absorption
- Phytic acid: in seeds, bran, and oat bran
- Too much fiber: found in vegetables, whole grains, and fruits can block absorption
- Caffeine: too much caffeine can reduce calcium absorption
- Too much salt: can interfere with your retention of calcium and for some can cause high blood pressure
- Aging: as we age the body absorbs less of the calcium we consume
Dairy foods more easily increase calcium levels in the body because they do not contain fiber, phytates, or oxalate. Your glass of milk or cup of yogurt contains protein in addition to calcium which further enhances your body’s ability to use calcium. Use our printable high-calcium foods chart to help increase your daily calcium intake.
It is better to consume a calcium supplement instead of no calcium at all but dairy products are a much more complete source of calcium
Calcium supplements offer calcium and sometimes vitamin D.
A good source of calcium like yogurt provides essential nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, protein, calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus which increases the absorption rate. Plus it gives you more energy!
Too much calcium can be a bad thing. However, it is rare for a healthy person to consume too much calcium.
Typically excessive levels of calcium are seen in individuals with health conditions such as thyroid malfunction, kidney disease, or cancer.
Limit daily calcium intake to <2000 mg per day. The tolerable upper intake level for adult men and women >51 is 2000 mg and for those aged 19-50 years old 2500 mg per day.
Dairy products are one of the easiest ways to increase calcium intake through the diet. Check out our printable high-calcium foods chart for more good sources of calcium.
To get the same amount of calcium from a plant source as one does from a glass of milk you would need to consume 3 cups of broccoli, 6 cups of sesame seeds, or 30 cups of unfortified soymilk.
Avoid fractures and brittle bones by hitting the recommended daily allowance for calcium, 1000-1200 mg daily depending on your age.
Other posts you may like:
- Iron-Rich Foods For Athletes
- Pros and Cons of Caffeine For Athletes
- The Best Supplements For Swimmers
Katie Schimmelpfenning RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, USA Swim Coach, and former Division 1 swimmer. She helps competitive swimmers fuel and train to optimize performance, recover faster, and prevent injury! She is passionate about spreading evidence-based nutrtion tips to help swimmers across the globe.