Getting the Calcium and Iron You Need

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We all know the importance of a healthy diet loaded with vitamins and minerals, and both calcium and iron are critical for our well-being. Calcium, the most abundant mineral in our bodies, is not only essential for strong bones and teeth, but it also helps maintain healthy blood vessels, appropriate blood clotting, hormone regulation, and nerve function. Iron, an essential mineral, is well-known for its role in transporting oxygen through the blood, and it’s also critical for healthy hair, skin, and nails, as well as appropriate hormone production. With so many important roles these ingredients play, are you sure your diet includes enough of each one?

The exact amounts of calcium and iron required in your diet will vary based on your overall health, age, and gender, and you should always speak with your doctor before considering any dramatic dietary changes. Ideally, adults should have 1,000–1,300 milligrams of calcium in their daily diet, while 8–18 milligrams of iron is best. Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, are the most common sources of calcium, while red meat and different types of fish are rich in iron.

Unfortunately, if you are lactose intolerant, have high cholesterol, have meat or dairy allergies, or follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, you may have difficulty getting enough calcium and iron from these sources. Supplements can be helpful in replacing missing calcium and iron, but it is better if you can derive enough of these nutritional essentials from natural foods. What many people don’t realize is that fruits and vegetables can be rich, delicious sources of calcium and iron, and they’re easy to incorporate into your diet in many tasty ways.

Dark, leafy greens such as kale, okra, turnip greens, parsley, spinach, and mustard greens are ideal sources of calcium, as are leafy green herbs such as fresh basil, fennel, chives, and dill. Several types of nuts—almonds, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts, in particular—are also rich in calcium. Figs, watercress, sesame seeds, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, prunes, and asparagus are other calcium-rich foods. If you prefer a sweeter taste, opt for kiwi, papaya, raspberries, rhubarb, limes, oranges, and blackberries, all of which are good sources of plant-based calcium.

Many of the same foods can do double duty in your diet as rich sources of iron, including spinach, asparagus, broccoli, and parsley. Collard greens, Swiss chard, alfalfa sprouts, and green onions are other greens rich in iron. Dried beans and peas, kidney beans, potatoes, mushrooms, olives, tomatoes, baked beans, and pumpkin are also great foods to eat to add iron to your diet. For that sweet tooth, try dried apricots, raisins, molasses, blackberries, strawberries, and dried coconut to get your daily iron.

With so many great options, there are many delicious ways you can make sure you’re getting enough calcium and iron in your diet. Because raw foods have the greatest amounts of nutrition, salads and smoothies are excellent ways to incorporate these foods into your diet. You can also try mixing some of these calcium- and iron-rich foods into bread doughs, savory sauces, and cake mixes, or use them as edible garnishes for every course of your meals. Even small amounts can help keep your diet balanced if you’re making an effort with every dish or meal.

These calcium- and iron-rich foods aren’t the only things you want to be eating to make sure you get your daily allowance, however. To help your body better absorb calcium, be sure you’re getting plenty of Vitamin D each day. Try sipping your green smoothie during a morning walk, or take along a mix of figs and nuts during a hike or to snack on while working in the garden. To absorb iron in the best way, you’ll need to have plenty of Vitamin C in your diet as well, so consider adding some calcium-rich orange slices to your dinner salad—you’ll get even better nutrition.

At the same time, you need to be aware of what not to eat to make sure you aren’t limiting your intake of calcium and iron. High amounts of caffeine—soda, tea, and coffee—as well as high salt diets can inhibit how well your body absorbs calcium and iron. Too much wheat bran can also impair calcium absorption, just as eggs can decrease iron absorption. Similarly, certain medications can also cause difficulties in absorbing either calcium or iron, making it doubly important that you consult your physician about your dietary needs and how best to meet them.

A well-balanced, highly varied diet including both calcium- and iron-rich foods can help you ensure you’re getting enough of these critical ingredients for a healthy lifestyle—even without the most common foods associated with these nutritional essentials.

Melissa Mayntz is a Florida-based freelance writer with an overwhelming fondness for calcium- and iron-rich broccoli, almonds, kiwi and berries. Learn more at MelissaMayntz.com.

Dark, leafy greens such as kale, okra, turnip greens, parsley, spinach, and mustard greens are ideal sources of calcium, as are leafy green herbs such as fresh basil, fennel, chives, and dill.