Calcium: It does a body good

By: Ashley Newport Oct 13, 2010
  Article

Most people aren’t getting enough of this essential nutrient. Here’s how to get more.

Calcium. It’s one nutrient that everyone has heard of, and one whose importance is hammered into children and elderly adults alike – for good reason. Calcium is an essential nutrient that maintains and promotes bone density, and the consequences of low-intake can be serious.

“Most people do get too little,” says Krista Leck Merner, registered dietician and owner of Bent Fork Nutrition. “We should have about three servings of dairy or [calcium] fortified products a day. Most of us get to two, but not three.”

A major health consequence of low calcium intake is osteoporosis, a disease characterized by the gradual deterioration of bone tissue, which can lead to an increased risk of fractures and — perhaps scarier still, for some — substantial loss in height. The disease is startlingly prevalent as well, with one in four women and one in eight men being diagnosed in their lifetimes. The disease primarily affects people over 50, and can take a minor trip or fall from embarrassing to debilitating.

Fortunately, the disease is preventable, even for those who shy away from dairy for dietary or personal reasons.

“You can have yogurt or cheese [if you don’t like milk], or soy if you want to switch from dairy,” says Leck Merner. “Or you can have two yogurts and a calcium supplement.” Leck Merner also acknowledges that leafy green vegetables like broccoli, spinach and kale provide calcium, but adds that they don’t pack quite as much of a bone-strengthening punch as milk or cheese. “You can also go for fortified products,” she says. “You can drink fortified soy or orange juice, or eat almonds. But you should still consider a supplement.”

Calcium intake should be the highest in adolescents between nine and 18 years old (1300 mg a day), and older adults who are 50 and over (1500 mg a day). Adults between 19 and 50 should aim for 1,000 mg daily. And despite the fact that women are more prone to osteoporosis than men, they don’t need more calcium — they just need to ensure that they’re getting the minimum requirement. “For some reason, men tend to be better milk drinkers than women,” says Leck Merner. “Women might also be more likely to cut out dairy for caloric restriction, and sometimes they just don’t eat as much [in general] as men.” Also to blame is menopause, in which drops in estrogen are linked to bone density loss.

For vegans, a supplement might be necessary to substitute for the lack of natural calcium in their diets. For those who simply don’t like or have difficulty tolerating lactose products, there are  surprising alternatives. “Some people might choose to eat canned fish, like salmon,” says Leck Merner. “Or really any fish that still has soft bones in it.” Another interesting source? “Molasses,” says Leck Merner. “It’s a random one that people can use.”

As for contraindications (or products that cancel out calcium), Leck Merner says not to worry too much. “In some cases, calcium can impair your ability to absorb iron, and caffeine can neutralize calcium.” However, she adds that most people don’t eat enough iron in one sitting to seriously negate the effects of either nutrient, but warns that pairing milk or cream with coffee might not be as effective at providing calcium as some think. In good news, calcium often strolls hand-in-hand with vitamin D, a nutrient present in some calcium-containing products like yogurt, and one that helps the body absorb calcium better.

And remember, those who fear they aren’t getting the proper amount of calcium or vitamin D (most easily absorbed from natural sunlight) should inquire about supplements before perusing the shelves at the drug store.

“Talk to a health professional,” says Leck Merner. “Don’t be self-medicating.”

Ashley Newport is a freelance journalist based in Toronto – well, in a city a little west of Toronto. She’s been writing for two years about almost everything. Her favourite topics include politics, society, entertainment, food and health. She loves to find out new things about nutrition, because she knows how important it is to know more about the health benefits of the foods you love. Her work can be found in Foodservice and Hospitality Magazine and a small Oakville community online paper located somewhere in cyberspace (Google Ashley to find it!).