Calcium is a mineral needed for bone health, blood clotting, muscle control and nerve function. In addition, it assists the body in maintaining a regular heartbeat. If you don’t consume enough calcium, your body takes it from your bones to maintain normal calcium levels in the blood - over time this can potentially lead to osteoporosis.
Most people will need about 1000mg of calcium in their diet per day. Teens need more, due to their rapidly growing bodies. In addition, as we age, we will need to consume more calcium daily, as it becomes more difficult for our bodies to absorb and retain the calcium we take in.
During pregnancy and lactation, the body needs more calcium, however it will adapt to the circumstances and increase the amount of calcium absorbed from foods. This means that there is no need to consume additional calcium above normal needs during this time.
Generally, when people think calcium sources, they think dairy, and for good reason. A serving of milk, cheese and yogurt generally has about 300mg. Three sources of dairy a day and, voilá, calcium needs just about met!
It is possible to meet your calcium needs without consuming dairy, but it’s going to take some work. I’ve seen many (unreliable) websites state that you can meet your calcium needs by consuming green leafy vegetables. Of course anything is possible, but I personally don’t want to eat five cups of cooked spinach on a daily basis. If you are dairy-free, choose foods that are fortified with calcium like soy or almond milk, fortified orange juice, protein shakes, meal replacement bars, and ready-to-eat cereals. Double check your milk alternative to make sure it is fortified with calcium. It should have 30% or more of your Percent Daily Value (more about that later). Check out the chart below to see where your favorite foods stand on the calcium front.
If you’re looking at the nutrition labels, you might be quite confused that the amount of calcium per serving is stated as a percentage, rather than the number of milligrams. Some micronutrients, such as calcium, are listed as a Percent Daily Value (%DV). Luckily, when it comes to calcium, this can be easily converted. The %DV is based on 1000mg per day, so 30% is equivalent to 300mg. Just add a zero to the end of the %DV and you have the number of milligrams.
It’s best to spread your calcium intake throughout the day, as the body can only absorb so much at one time. My suggestion is to try to include one source of calcium in each meal. For every meal that doesn’t include much calcium, have a calcium-containing snack that day. Some snack suggestions are yogurt, whole grain crackers and cheese or a glass of milk.
If you’re finding it difficult to meet your calcium needs through food, talk to your provider about taking a calcium supplement. A note of caution: there is more and more evidence stating that calcium supplements may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. This notion is somewhat controversial, but there definitely seems to be some merit to this. Talk to your provider about the specific risks and benefits of taking a supplement and how they pertain to you.