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Everyone talks a lot about calcium and how crucial it is for healthy living.

But what exactly is calcium? And why is it so important?

Here are some facts (and a few myths) which should shed light on this much-talked-about but often misunderstood essential nutrient.

What is Calcium?

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body and the major component of bones and teeth. About 99% of our calcium is found in our bones and teeth while the other 1% is stored in blood and soft tissues.

Why is Calcium Important?

To begin with, we need calcium to maintain a healthy skeleton. As bones breakdown, calcium helps build new bone, which is why it’s so crucial to get enough calcium throughout your lifetime. It’s especially important in childhood when bones are still growing and in old age when bones break down faster than they can rebuild.

But calcium is not just about strengthening your bones and teeth. Your body also needs calcium in order to contract all muscles in your body (including the heart), to transmit messages (nerve impulses) between the brain and virtually every other part of your body, to activate blood-clotting factors, to move blood through your veins and to secrete hormones. Calcium also helps stabilize and optimize proteins and enzymes in the body.

In short, calcium is vital to almost every function in the human body!

Now let’s look at some of the most common myths that swirl around calcium.

Myth #1: The Best Way to Get Calcium Is to Consume Dairy

We’ve all heard we should drink milk or eat dairy products to boost our calcium levels. But in fact, the best sources of calcium come from the produce department—not the dairy department!

The reason is simple. Calcium is a mineral found in soil where it is then absorbed into the roots of plants. Animals (like cattle) get their calcium by eating these plants. So the real source of calcium comes from the earth itself—not the cows grazing on the plants.

In the end, whole plant foods such as green vegetables, beans, seeds and even fruits are rich in calcium; you can get all you need from a whole food plant-based diet without having to eat dairy products.

What’s more, getting your calcium from plant-based foods is far more efficient than getting it from dairy products. When you drink a glass of milk, 1/3 of the calcium is lost through urinary elimination. And the numbers are even worse for cheese – your body loses 2/3 of the calcium in cheese. By contrast, when you eat plant-based foods, your body can use up to 60% of their calcium content.

Myth #2: Large Intake of Calcium Is Necessary for Healthy Bones

When it comes to calcium, it is not always about eating large quantities. One of the most interesting (and little known) facts about calcium is that our bodies—in their infinite wisdom and wonder—know how to maintain healthy calcium levels.

When you take in too much calcium, the intestines absorb less and the kidneys eliminate more. On a relatively low-calcium diet, the opposite happens; the intestines adjust to more efficiently absorb the mineral while the kidneys shift into conservation mode. So your body regulates your calcium much more efficiently than you can!

Myth #3: Low Calcium Intake Is the Primary Cause of Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a real threat. Over 10 million Americans already have it and 34 million are at risk. Contrary to popular belief though, low intake of calcium is not the culprit behind osteoporosis. The real culprit is likely the excess animal protein in a typical American diet as well as the high quantities of salt, caffeine and sugar—all of which promote heavy urinary calcium loss.

As for calcium supplements, studies show clearly that they do little to decrease the risk of osteoporosis-related hip fractures while at the same time causing severe side effects like kidney stones, gastrointestinal distress, and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

In conclusion, you don’t need dairy products or supplements to ensure you’re getting enough calcium; you can get ample calcium simply from eating a varied low sodium whole food plant-based diet.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.