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This weekend I was teaching a master’s of nutrition class and one of the questions that came up was, what is the best way to absorb calcium in the diet? The discussion revolved around whether vegetables or milk was a better way to get the calcium needed for good health and strong bones.
I find this to be a complicated question that is not answered by simply choosing either vegetables or milk. Here are the considerations I think about before answering this question.
If we start by looking at the calcium absorption differences between vegetables and milk, we find that there are several green, leafy vegetables that have higher absorption rates than milk. Dr. Fuhrman and Dr. Barnard, two physicians that have written articles about calcium absorption in foods, both share the following information.
Calcium absorption from milk is about 32 percent whereas some green, leafy vegetables have a calcium absorption rate of over 50 percent. Here are a few examples of the calcium absorption for vegetables:
Broccoli - 53 percent
Brussels sprouts - 64 percent
Mustard greens - 64 percent
Turnip greens - 52 percent
Kale - 40 to 59 percent
So while milk and dairy products have high amounts of calcium, only one-third of it is being absorbed. The green, leafy vegetables with higher absorption come very close to delivering similar amounts to the body as milk.
Another point about dairy products is that they, along with other processed foods and animal products, tend to produce a slightly acidic environment in the body. This cause calcium to be drawn out of the bones and into the body, where it gets excreted through the kidneys.
Green, leafy vegetables, like most other vegetables, tend to make the blood more alkaline which tends to cause calcium to remain in the bone matrix and continue to strengthen the bones.
When I take these two ideas together with the understanding that milk products, unless organic, generally contain steroids and growth hormone that further impacts or overall health, my recommendation is to use green, leafy vegetables as a better food source for calcium than milk products.