Are you getting enough calcium? Find out which calcium-rich foods and dietary supplements to add to your diet.
Calcium is one of the essential nutrients, vital for many bodily functions and for strong bones and teeth. “Calcium is really a very important,” says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “Without it, we would die, which is the definition of an essential nutrient.” Calcium is found in certain foods as well as being available in dietary supplements — such as calcium supplements and calcium magnesium supplements, which supply both essential minerals. Here are some basic facts you need to know about calcium.
- What is calcium?
- Calcium is a mineral. Our bodies contain more calcium than any other mineral. As much as 99 percent of the calcium in our bodies is stored in our teeth and bones, although it is also present in our blood, muscle, and the fluid between body cells.
- What does calcium do?
- Calcium is essential for building and maintaining our bones. We have to have enough calcium at all times to ensure that our bones have adequate structure, says Tallmadge. Calcium is also necessary for the contraction and expansion of muscles and blood vessels, the secretion of hormones and enzymes, and nerve impulse transmission throughout the nervous system. “We need a constant amount of calcium,” Tallmadge says. “Not getting enough calcium increases your risk of osteoporosis, hypertension, colon cancer, and preeclampsia.”
- How much calcium do I need?
- Your daily calcium requirement depends on your age and a variety of other factors. For example, teens need more calcium than adults; older adults, particularly post-menopausal women, need extra calcium to prevent osteoporosis because the lower levels of estrogen that accompany menopause decrease bone mass, says Tallmadge. People with conditions such as Crohn’s or celiac disease, which can interfere with calcium absorption, may need extra calcium. And because dairy is a major source of calcium, those who do not or cannot eat dairy may require calcium supplements, says Tallmadge. Here is an overview of how much calcium we need at different stages of life:
- 0 to 6 months: 200 milligrams (mg) per day
- 7 months to 1 year: 260 mg
- 1 to 3 years: 700 mg
- 4 to 8 years: 1,000 mg
- 9 to 18 years: 1,300 mg
- Women 19 to 50 years and men 19 to 70 years: 1,000 mg
- Women 51 years and older and men 71 years and older: 1,200 mg
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women under age 19: 1,300 mg
- Pregnant and breastfeeding women over age 19: 1,000 mg
It’s important to know that calcium by itself is not enough. “You need a balanced diet including adequate protein and vitamin D levels in order to absorb calcium into your bones,” says Tallmadge.
- How can I get the calcium I need?
- The best way to get calcium is by eating foods that contain high amounts of the mineral. Many foods such as dairy products contain high amounts of calcium. Calcium is also often added to foods such as juices. Top calcium-rich choices include:
- Dairy products such as cheese, milk, and yogurt
- Green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale
- Foods fortified with calcium such as juices, tofu, cereals, rice milk, and soymilk
Milk is a particularly good source of calcium because it is usually fortified with vitamin D. So are some other dairy products — always read product nutrition labels to be sure, and choose low- or no-fat dairy foods for better health. Certain fish, such as salmon, also supply vitamin D.
If you need more calcium than you’re getting through food, your doctor might recommend a dietary supplement. Calcium citrate can be absorbed well on an empty or full stomach, while calcium carbonate is best absorbed when taken with a meal.
- What are the findings of recent research studies of calcium?
- Previous research has suggested that people who do not get adequate amounts of calcium may be at increased risk of high blood pressure, and that people who take more calcium may have a reduced risk of weight gain, stroke, and colon cancer. However, the evidence for this is not conclusive.
Recently, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston reviewed 17 previous studies on the effects of calcium and vitamin D. They found that while some studies suggested vitamin D may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, this was not true of calcium. A recent Swedish study of more than 23,000 men over a nine-year period showed that taking extra calcium did seem to lower the risk of certain chronic diseases.
While there is some evidence suggesting that calcium may be associated with health benefits and reduced risk of some chronic diseases, researchers say more studies are needed to determine exactly what role calcium might play.