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Why Calcium Is Important and How You Can Incorporate It into Your Diet

By Shirin Hooshmand,  PhD (Member, Medical & Scientific Advisory Board)

Whenever I speak with consumers about bone health, they always have the most questions about calcium!

Calcium is one of the most important and plentiful minerals in the body. When calcium combines with phosphate, it becomes the material that makes the bones and teeth strong. We also need calcium for transmitting nerve impulses, contracting muscles and clotting blood.

The body regulates the calcium that is circulating in the blood and tissues. Calcium is absorbed in the intestines and either reclaimed or excreted by the kidneys. If the blood level of calcium falls, glands in the body signal the bones to release calcium into the blood. That is why it is best to keep a ready source of calcium available, preferably through food.

Vitamin D and calcium work together. When calcium works its way through the stomach and into the intestines, it interacts with vitamin D to get absorbed into the blood stream. Without sufficient vitamin D, you will not absorb the calcium you eat.

Children need the most calcium while their bones are growing. After peak bone mass is obtained, the calcium recommended daily allowance (RDA) goes down and then goes up again around the age of menopause, when women start to lose bone mass because of declines in estrogen levels. As we age, calcium metabolism is harder to maintain, so the RDA stays the same.

Life stage group

Calcium
RDA

Calcium rich servings

Vitamin D
RDA

9–18 years old

1,300

4

600

19–50 years old

1,000

3

600

MEN: 51–70 years old

1,000

3

600

WOMEN: 51–70 years old

1,200

4

600

71+ years old

1,200

4

800

Sometimes it’s easier to think about calcium in terms of servings of food. Getting calcium from food is the best option since your body is better able to put it to use. The best sources of dietary calcium are foods that have 200 or more milligrams per serving. This includes dairy or calcium-fortified foods, and you will see on the labels that they contain anywhere from 200 to 400 milligrams per serving. Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds have smaller amounts of calcium, and the calcium in fruits and vegetables attaches to fiber and passes through the body.

Try to find 3 or 4 HIGH sources of calcium that work for you each day. You can also think about how to have 1 HIGH source of calcium at every meal.

HIGH
(200+ mg)

MODERATE
(50-200 mg)

LOW
(<50 mg)

Dairy Foods

Almonds

Nuts and seeds

Sardines

Beans

Broccoli

Fortified cereals

Canned salmon

Cabbage

Fortified soy milk

Green vegetables

Fruits

Fortified tofu

Breads

 

 

People who are lactose intolerant are at risk of not getting enough calcium. There is no cure for lactose intolerance, but you can do some things to reduce symptoms.

Try to reduce the amount of lactose per serving rather than avoiding it. Some studies show that people with lactose intolerance can eat at least 12 grams of lactose (equivalent to 1 cup of milk) with minor or no symptoms. When lactose is taken with other foods, some people can tolerate up to 18 grams.

Shop for lactose-free milk. Milk that has been treated with lactase is widely available and often well tolerated by people with lactose intolerance.

Think about hard cheeses. Hard cheeses, such as most cheddars, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Romano, do not have lactose since their lactose is changed into lactic acid as the cheese ages.

Look for yogurts with active cultures. Yogurts with active cultures are much less likely to cause problems. Yogurts and other foods that list “added milk solids” or “whey” can contain significant amounts of lactose.

Try soy-based beverages that are fortified with calcium. Soy-based beverages are the only plant-based option listed on MyPlate. Other plant- and nut-based beverages, such as rice and almond beverages, may not have the same nutritional value as soy. It’s important to read food labels carefully.

Most importantly, try to get a balanced diet with five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. With a balanced diet, you are sure to get all of the additional vitamins and minerals you need for strong bones.


Shirin Hooshmand, PhD,   is a member of the American Bone Health Medical & Scientific Advisory Board. Dr. Hooshmand is Associate Professor of Nutrition at the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University. She received her PhD at Florida State University working in the area of nutrition, bone, and cartilage. Her current research interests include bone and calcium metabolism, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, and functional foods. She has published 32 original articles in peer reviewed journals and presented more than 60 abstracts in national and international symposiums.

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