You probably know you should include calcium as part of a healthy diet in order to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis. But do you know that this mineral is essential for good health? Calcium is also important for muscles, the nervous system, and blood clotting. The mineral might also play a role in maintaining a healthy heart, preventing colon cancer, and losing weight. So how do you know if you’re getting enough of this essential mineral? Should you consume more dairy products? Eat more calcium-fortified foods? Take supplements? Let’s take a closer look at calcium and find out what are the best sources for this mineral.
What is calcium?
Calcium is an essential mineral that our bodies need. We cannot make it, so we must ingest it. While most of us know that calcium is important for strong bones and teeth, it is also need for a variety of body functions. Calcium is also needed for normal muscle contractions (normal function), blood clotting (without calcium, blood won’t clot), and normal nervous system activity (nerves would not be able to carry messages). Recent studies also show that calcium might have a role in promoting weight loss (separate from cutting calories), preventing colon cancer, relieving premenstrual symptoms, regulating blood pressure, and preventing heart disease.
How much calcium do we need?
We need calcium throughout our lives. It is essential throughout childhood and adolescence, when bones are actively forming and growing. Even after we stop growing, we can still build bone. Pregnant women need calcium to help nourish their growing fetuses. Nursing mothers need it for milk production. Menopausal and post-menopausal women whose bodies produce less estrogen need to calcium to prevent bone loss. Even men need calcium to bone loss as they get older.
Most adult need to consume about 1,000 mg of calcium a day, or about three to four servings of calcium-rich foods. For most us, that’s a lot of green leafy vegetables and milk to consume every day. Which is why most adults, and some children and teens need to take a supplement.
- 0 to 6 months 210 mg/day
- 1 to 3 years old 500 mg/day
- 4 to 8 years old 800 mg/day
- 9 to 18 years 1,300 mg/day
- 19 to 50 years 1,000 to 1200 mg/day
- 51 and over 1,200 to 1500 mg/day
What happens if we don't consume enough calcium?
Our bodies are smart. If we do not consume enough calcium in our diets, the body meets the need by getting it from “storage” — our bones. Over time, to maintain normal body function, calcium will be “robbed” from the bones, causing thinner bones and resulting in osteoporosis (or a less severe form of bone loss called osteopenia). This is not the only factor in bone disease, but it is the main one. Others include lack of exercise, low levels of estrogen, and family history.
How do you meet your calcium needs?
How do I choose a calcium supplement?
A good rule of thumb is to get a minimum of one to two servings of calcium-rich foods a day (around 500 mg of calcium) and make up the difference with a supplement. The body easily absorbs 500 mg of calcium, but greater amounts are less easily absorbed. You don’t have to spend a fortune on calcium supplements. A calcium-fortified TUMS tablet, one of the cheapest of the cheapest supplements, taken along with a daily multiple vitamin will meet the recommended daily allowance. You can purchase a variety of supplements made from calcium carbonate or calcium citrate, which has slightly better absorption rate, as pills, chewable tablets, or chocolate disks. Oyster shell calcium and coral calcium (promoted as a “miracle cure”) can have traces of lead. Natural sources of calcium are usually more expensive, but not any better. Or you could take a 30-minute walk in the sunshine as a “supplement.”
Are there ways to maximize calcium intake?
Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption. Dairy products and many supplements are fortified with vitamin D. Most of us don’t need to consume vitamin D if we are outside without sunscreen for at least a half hour a day. Our skin makes it. But most people should take a daily multivitamin or take a calcium supplement containing vitamin D. People at risk for vitamin D deficiency include the elderly, dark-skinned people, and those who wear sunscreen. It is estimated the about 40 percent of adults over 50 have a vitamin D deficiency. It is recommended that adults get about 400 mg of Vitamin D a day. Because many calcium supplements contain vitamin D, make sure your total does not exceed 1000 mg a day. It is a fat soluble vitamin, which is retained by the body, so too much over time can be harmful.
Can you build stronger bones?
It’s never too late to help your bone health. You can build up bone at any age, although less slowly when you’re older. Consumer about 1,000 to 1,500 mg of calcium a day and do weight -bearing exercises. Lifting weights stimulate bone growth. But you don’t have to pump iron. You can walk, rake leaves, or ice skate. Women who are still menstruating are also producing estrogen, so consuming calcium will help build bones.
Dr. Fernstrom’s Bottom Line: Calcium is essential not only for bone growth, but also for the body’s main functions. The consistent and daily intake of dairy foods and other sources like dark green vegetables, combined with calcium-fortified foods and supplements as additional sources can reduce the likelihood of thinning bones, or osteoporosis, in older adults.
Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., CNS,is the founder and director of the An associate professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Fernstrom is also a board-certified nutrition specialist from theAmerican College of Nutrition.
PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.