The importance of getting enough calcium in your diet

What is calcium?

Calcium is essential for building and maintaining bone. About 99 percent of the calcium in our bodies is in our bones and teeth.

Calcium combines with other minerals to form hard crystals that give your bones strength and structure. In addition to building bones and keeping them healthy, calcium assists in muscle contraction, transmission of nervous system messages, heart rate regulation, blood clotting, enzyme activity and production and activity of hormones involved in digestion, energy and fat metabolism.

Our bodies cannot produce calcium itself, and if we don’t get enough calcium for our body’s needs, it is taken from our bones which is why it's important to get enough calcium in our daily diets for optimal health.

A calcium-rich diet during childhood helps maximise peak bone mass and helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in later life. Bone building is at its peak during childhood and adolescence, and bone density is at its maximum in your early twenties. Both men and women lose bone mass as they grow older, eating enough calcium-rich foods is, therefore, essential throughout life to maintain strong bones and to help slow down the bone loss that occurs naturally with age.

The best way to get the daily recommended level of calcium intake for your age and sex is to eat calcium-rich foods. Good sources of calcium include dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese, and calcium-fortified products such as soymilk and breakfast cereals as well as some vegetables.

If you think you may not be meeting the daily requirements for calcium, talk to your doctor about a calcium supplement. 

What is osteoporosis?  
From Osteoporosis Australia: Bones act like a calcium bank, if you do not take in enough calcium from your diet, the body will withdraw calcium from your ‘bone bank’ for use in other parts of the body.

If your body withdraws more calcium than it deposits, your bone density (bone strength) will gradually decline, and you may be at risk of developing osteoporosis. Osteoporosis occurs when bones lose minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than the body can replace them, causing a loss of bone thickness (bone density or mass).

As bones become thinner and less dense, even a minor bump or fall can cause a serious fracture (a complete or partial break in a bone).  Any bone can be affected by osteoporosis, but the most common sites are the hip, spine and wrist. 

Fractures in the spine due to osteoporosis can result in height loss or changes in posture. Osteoporosis usually has no symptoms until a fracture occurs, this is why osteoporosis is often called the 'silent disease’. 

Fractures can lead to chronic pain, a loss of independence, disability and even premature death – so managing bone health to avoid fractures is a priority.

Anyone with specific risk factors for osteoporosis should be investigated by their doctor. Anyone over 50 who experiences a broken bone from a minor bump or fall should be investigated for osteoporosis.

For people diagnosed with osteoporosis, calcium alone is not sufficient to prevent fractures, osteoporosis treatment is also required. Those diagnosed will be tested for adequate vitamin D levels (your body requires vitamin D to absorb calcium), and encouraged to exercise regularly to support bone health, quit smoking and limit alcohol intake. 

Risk factors for osteoporosis 
- Not consuming enough calcium or vitamin D
- Family history
- Aged over 50 years
- Menopause
- Some medications or conditions
- Excessive alcohol or caffeine intake
- Thin build or excessive body weight 
- Low levels of physical activity
- Smoking

Physical activity and calcium 
From Osteoporosis Australia: Regular physical activity and exercise plays an important role in maintaining or improving bone density. Exercise also increases the size, strength and capacity of our muscles.

However, exercise must be regular and ongoing to have a proper benefit. Our bones become stronger when a certain amount of impact or extra strain is placed on them. This means there are specific types of exercises that are better for bone. 

The specific goals of exercising for bone health change throughout life from building maximum bone strength in childhood and adolescence to optimising and maintaining muscle and bone strength in young and mid-adulthood, and reducing bone loss in older age.

For the elderly, the focus of exercise is to increase or maintain muscle mass and strength and address risk factors for falls, particularly any difficulty in balance and walking ability.
Specific types of exercise are important for improving bone strength:
- Weight bearing exercise (exercise done while on your feet, so you bear your own weight). For example brisk walking, jogging, skipping, basketball/netball, tennis, dancing, impact aerobics, stair walking.
- Progressive resistance training (becomes more challenging over time). For example lifting weights - hand/ankle weights or gym equipment.
The ability of an exercise to build bone depends on the specific way that stress is applied to the bone during the exercise. Talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program to see if it’s right for you. 

Daily calcium needs 
From the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia:
Infants: 0-6 months 210mg/day, 7-12 months  270mg/day
Children: 1-3 - 500mg/day, 4-8: - 700mg/day, 9-11 – 1000mg/day
Teenagers: 12 – 18 1,300mg/day
Men: 19 – 70 – 1000mg/day, 70+ 1,300mg per day
Women: 19 – 50 1000mg/day, 51+ 1,300mg/day
Pregnancy: 14 – 18 1,300mg/day, 19+ 1000mg/day

Calcium supplements 
While it is recommended to get enough calcium in your daily diet by eating calcium-rich foods, if you feel this is difficult, or you are not getting enough you may need to consider taking a calcium supplement, especially if you are at risk of developing osteoporosis.

Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you. If you are taking a calcium supplement already, it is important to follow the daily-recommended dosage as advised as exceeding the daily dose can cause bloating and constipation.

Tips on how to get more calcium in your diet
Include dairy products in your daily diet:
 Milk, yoghurt or cheese.
Eat your greens: Include broccoli, bok-choy, swiss chard, cabbage, cucumber, celery or spinach in your meals.
Eat more fish: If you can’t get fresh fish, eat canned fish such as sardines or salmon with the bones left in.
Replace the meat in some meals: Try tofu, tempeh, chickpeas or soybeans.
Try calcium-rich snacks: Brazil nuts, almonds, dried figs, dried apricots.
Reduce your intake of: Caffeine, soft drinks and alcohol. These drinks inhibit calcium absorption and should be consumed in moderation.
Add sesame seeds to your meals: high in calcium and easy to add.
Eat calcium-fortified foods: Some cereals, fruit juices and breads now come with calcium added to the ingredients, check the labels.

Contact us if you require more information or have any questions:


(Foods rich in calcium. Picture: Medical News Today)

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