Most of the body’s calcium (around 99%) is found in the skeleton and teeth – the rest is stored in the tissues or blood and is essential for building and maintaining bone.
Calcium combines with other minerals to form hard crystals that give your bones strength and structure and also plays a crucial role in other systems of the body, such as the health and functioning of nerves and muscle tissue.
A small amount of calcium is absorbed into the blood, which is essential for the healthy functioning of the heart, muscles, and nerves. 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’ to 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 (brittle bones).
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.
People receive most of their calcium from dairy foods however if milk is removed from the diet, it can lead to an inadequate intake of calcium which is a concern for children and adolescents, who have high calcium needs.
The best way to get the daily-recommended level of calcium intake for your age is to eat calcium-rich foods, or talk to your doctor about a calcium supplement.
For people diagnosed with osteoporosis calcium alone is not sufficient to prevent fractures.
Osteoporosis treatment is also required; your doctor will advise you on what is right for you.
Role of Calcium In The Body –
- Strengthening bones and teeth
- Regulating muscle functioning, such as contraction and relaxation
- Regulating heart functioning
- Blood clotting
- Transmission of nervous system messages
- Enzyme function
What happens if I don’t get enough calcium?
If the body is not getting enough calcium circulating in the blood, it will use hormones to reduce the amount put out by the kidneys in the urine.
If not enough calcium is absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract, calcium will be taken from the bones.
If your dietary intake of calcium is constantly low, your body will eventually remove so much calcium from the skeleton that your bones will become weak and brittle.
People With Special Calcium Needs -
Babies – Formula-fed babies are estimated to need more than babies that are breastfed because the calcium in infant formula may not be absorbed as efficiently as breast milk.
Young Children – Skeletal tissue is constantly growing, so young children have high calcium requirements.
Pre-teens and Teenagers – This group needs more calcium to build peak bone mass.
If the skeleton is strengthened with enough calcium during these years, diseases like osteoporosis later in life are thought to be less likely.
Early 20s to Mid-life – Sufficient dietary calcium is required to maintain bone mass, although the amount of calcium required is less than during growth stages of life.
Pregnant Women – A developing baby needs calcium.
Your doctor will advise you on your specific calcium needs based on your diet.
Breastfeeding Women – There is no increased requirement for calcium during breastfeeding, except for breastfeeding adolescents.
Elderly People – As we age, the skeleton loses calcium.
Both men and women lose bone mass as they grow older and need to make sure they get enough calcium in their diet to offset these losses.
While a diet high in calcium cannot reverse age-related bone loss, it can slow down the process.
Calcium Needs Vary With Age –
Not all the calcium we consume is absorbed.
It is normal for a small amount of calcium to be lost and excreted which is factored into the recommended intake for your age.
The recommended dietary intake of calcium is different for people of different ages and life stages.
According to the The Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Sciences the daily recommended amount of Calcium needed is:
Babies 0-6 Months - 210mg (if breastfed) or 350mg a day (if formula fed)
Babies 7-12 Months - 270mg
Children 1-3 Years - 700mg
Children 4-8 Years - 1,000mg
Children 9-13 Years - 1,300mg
Adolescents 14-18 Years -1,300mg
Women 19-50 Years - 1,000mg
Women 51 + Years - 1,200mg
Men 19-70 Years - 1,000
Men 70+ Years – 1,200
Lifestyle Can Affect Bone Strength -
Some of the factors that can reduce calcium in your bones and lower bone density (weaken bones) include:
- High salt diet
- More than six drinks per day of caffeine-containing drinks
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Very low body weight
- Very high intakes of fibre
- Low levels of physical activity
- Low levels of vitamin D
Calcium Supplements -
It is much better to get calcium from foods (which also provide other nutrients) than from calcium supplements.
If you have difficulty eating enough foods rich in calcium, you might need to consider a calcium supplement, especially if you are at risk of developing osteoporosis.
Talk with your doctor if you are unable to get enough calcium-rich foods in your diet. If you are taking a calcium supplement already, it is important to follow the daily-recommended dosage on the bottle. Consuming more calcium daily then required can cause gastrointestinal upsets such as bloating and constipation.
Tips On How To Get More Calcium In Your Diet -
Include dairy products in your diet every day - Choose from milk, yoghurt, or cheese.
Eat more leafy green vegetables - Include broccoli, cabbage, bok-choy or spinach in your meals.
Eat more fish - If you can’t get fresh fish, eat tinned fish such as sardines or salmon with the bones left in.
Replace the meat in some meals with tofu or tempeh - Cutting back on saturated fat is good for your health.
Snack on calcium-rich nuts - Have a handful of Brazil nuts or almonds daily as a snack.
Reduce your intake of caffeine, soft drinks and alcohol –These drinks inhibit calcium absorption and should be consumed in moderation.
Use sesame seeds in your meals - Sesame seeds are high in calcium and easy to include in meals.
Eat more calcium-fortified foods - Some cereals, fruit juices and bread's now come with calcium added to the ingredients, check the labels.
Remember – It is much better to get calcium from foods (which also provide other nutrients) then from calcium supplements. If you have difficulty eating enough foods rich in calcium to reach the daily requirements for optimal health, you might need to consider a calcium supplement. Talk with your doctor.
Tip – It is important to keep up to date with regular health checks at your local urban health clinic.