If you're looking for big dietary calcium boosts, milk products lead the way to better nutrition. Aside from fortified cereal, dairy sources dominate the high-calcium foods list. You can select various mineral concentrations, calorie counts and fat contents of different foods made with milk to achieve your daily 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium. Base your choices among varieties of yogurt, milk and cheese on how well your body digests lactose, or milk sugar, as well as your weight and health priorities.
Condensed and Evaporated Milks
Canned condensed and evaporated milks have the highest calcium ratios of all dairy products, but may not be the best sources for daily consumption. People use these rich forms of milk, from which much of the water is removed in processing, in cooking or as additions to other beverages, such as coffee, tea and hot chocolate. Although 1 cup of sweetened condensed milk has 869 milligrams of calcium and nonfat evaporated milk has 742 milligrams of calcium, you may be more likely to dilute them than to drink them full strength in that quantity. One cup of sweetened condensed milk would deliver 982 calories, compared to nonfat evaporated milk's 200 calories.
Ricotta cheese, a sheep's milk and whey product, is a more palatable high-calcium dairy item that you can eat as processed. You pay a high caloric price -- 339 calories for ricotta made from reduced-fat milk -- for its 669 milligrams of calcium per 1 cup. Whole-milk ricotta has less calcium and more calories from fat. Ricotta's short shelf life of eight days and richness may discourage its frequent use and consumption in large portions.
Plain, fat-free yogurt represents a convenient, widely available, healthy choice for calcium nutrition. The live cultures in some brands of yogurt make it more acceptable than other forms of milk for people with lactose intolerance. One 8 ounce serving provides 452 milligrams of calcium, or about 45 percent of your daily requirement, in 127 calories. Additional fat or sweetener displaces some of the calcium content, so low-fat, whole-milk and flavored yogurts have less calcium value than nonfat varieties.
The calcium in the milk and ice cream ingredients in milk shakes results in a high-calcium beverage that is also high in fat and calories. At 457 milligrams of calcium, an 11-ounce vanilla milk shake has 351 calories and 10 grams of fat. If you are watching your weight or limiting fat to reduce your cardiovascular risk, opt for plain milk instead. One cup of fat-free milk has 299 milligrams of calcium, zero fat and just 83 calories.
Drink milk and eat yogurt for by far the richest food sources of calcium. Your body needs calcium to contract muscles, expand and contract blood vessels, secrete hormones and enzymes, transmit nerve impulses and strengthen bones and teeth, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. The body regulates the concentration of calcium in the blood to support these functions. Stored calcium in bones provides a rigid skeletal frame and serves as a calcium reservoir to keep tight control over circulating calcium.
Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, helps grow healthy bones early in life and minimize bone loss later in life. From 1 to 2 percent of your body weight is calcium, and 99 percent of it is in bones and teeth, according to Eleanor Whitney and Sharon Rolfes in "Understanding Nutrition." The bones provide a reservoir of calcium for the blood. Blood calcium helps the muscles move, the heart beat and nerves communicate. Hormones and vitamin D regulate the level of calcium in blood.
Choose fat-free or low-fat milk. The most abundant source of calcium is milk and milk products. Most people need at least three servings from the milk group to meet daily calcium recommendations. About 30 percent of calcium from milk products is absorbed, compared with less than 5 percent from spinach. You would need to eat 8 cups of spinach containing six times as much calcium as 1 cup of milk to deliver the same amount of absorbable calcium to your body, according to "Understanding Nutrition."
Choose low-fat and nonfat versions, either plain or flavored. Use yogurt as salad dressing or sandwich spread. Use in dips, desserts and main dishes. Substitute frozen yogurt for ice cream. One cup of nonfat, low-fat or fruit yogurt provides 31 percent to 45 percent of the adequate intake for calcium, according to the Ohio State University Extension. One cup of frozen yogurt provides about 10 percent of the intake for calcium. If you are lactose-intolerant, choose yogurt for a lactose-free, high-calcium food.
The FDA regulates labeling of food products. Products labeled as "high," "rich in" or "excellent" source of calcium supply at least 20 percent of the adequate intake for calcium. A product labeled a "good" source of calcium must provide at least 10 percent. Products labeled "more," "enriched," "fortified" or "added" have 10 percent or less, according to "Understanding Nutrition."
Adults need an adequate intake of 1,000 mg of calcium per day and can safely consume up to 2,500 mg per day. The FDA requires the nutrition labels on food containers to state the percentage of daily value of calcium provided per serving.
A low calcium intake during the growing years limits the optimal mass and density of bones. Most people achieve their peak bone mass by their late 20s. Low calcium intake may lead to less dense bones or bone loss and higher risk of osteoporosis.