You know the saying, “There’s no point in crying over spilled milk.” But missing the vital calcium provided by milk can be the reason for some tears.
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Calcium is an essential mineral that keeps your bones and teeth strong. It is also needed for many functions in your body, such as muscle movement, blood clotting, and nerve signaling.
Your body cannot produce calcium — it must come from your diet. And according to dietitian Anthony DiMarino, RD, many Americans don’t get enough calcium.
Your diet may not have the calcium you need
“There is a move away from dairy due to an increase in lactose intolerance and plant-based diets,” says DiMarino. “People who don’t eat dairy or who have higher calcium needs should be more vigilant about getting enough calcium each day.”
Recommended Calcium Dietary Allowances
The amount of calcium you need varies depending on your age and gender. In general, children, postmenopausal women, and adults over 70 need more calcium. “As you age, your body absorbs less calcium from your diet,” says DiMarino. “For women, hormonal changes during menopause can sap calcium from your bones.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for calcium in milligrams (mg) are:
|4-8 years old||1000mg|
|9-13 years old||1300mg|
|14-18 years old||1300mg|
|19-50 years old||1000mg|
|51-70 years old (men)||1000mg|
|51-70 years old (women)||1200mg|
|71+ years old||1200mg|
How Calcium Deficiency Affects Your Health
Most of your body’s calcium is stored in your bones and teeth. There is a smaller amount in your blood and tissues.
Your body works hard to maintain a constant level of calcium in your blood. If your blood level drops because you’re not getting enough calcium from your diet, your bones will release calcium to increase the level.
Over time, this process can weaken your bones and lead to:
- Osteoporosis: This condition is more common in older people. It involves a loss of bone mass and an increased risk of fractures. Most people don’t have symptoms of osteoporosis until a fracture occurs.
- Rickets: This childhood disease causes skeletal deformities and growth retardation. Usually, rickets is due to vitamin D deficiency, but it can also result from low calcium.
Many foods can help increase the calcium in your diet, even if you have lactose intolerance or follow a vegan diet. Try to eat a variety of these foods to meet your daily calcium needs:
Milk and dairy products are among the best sources of calcium. A few servings a day are enough to provide you with all the calcium you need. When choosing dairy products, remember to consider calories, fat, and sodium, which can be high in some dairy products.
|Vanilla yogurt (low fat)||8 ounces||388mg|
|Milk, 1%||1 cup||310mg|
|Ricotta cheese, whole milk||1/2 cup||289mg|
|Greek yogurt, plain (low fat)||8 ounces||261mg|
|Cottage cheese, 2% fat||1 cup||227mg|
|cheddar cheese||1 ounce||200mg|
Vegetables and fruit juices
Leafy greens and broccoli are excellent sources of calcium. Generally, fruits are not high in calcium, but some juices are fortified. This means that the manufacturer has added calcium to the product. Fortified orange juice contains more calcium than a glass of milk.
|Orange juice, calcium fortified||1 cup||349mg|
|Green cabbage, cooked||1 cup||268mg|
|Spinach, cooked||1 cup||245mg|
|Bok choy, cooked||1 cup||158mg|
|Kale, cooked||1 cup||177mg|
|Broccoli, cooked||1 cup||62mg|
Foods high in protein
Some proteins, such as tofu with added calcium sulfate and canned fish with bones, are high in calcium. You may need to read labels carefully to decipher which foods can provide your daily dose of calcium.
|Tofu, prepared with calcium sulfate||1/2 cup||434mg|
|Sardines, canned, with bones||3 ounces||324mg|
|Soy milk, fortified||1 cup||299mg|
|Black beans, canned||1 cup||239mg|
|Salmon, canned, with bones||3 ounces||181mg|
Cereals are generally not high in calcium, but are an important part of a balanced diet. Some breads and cereals are fortified and can be a great option for increasing your calcium intake. Check packages and labels to find fortified options you might enjoy.
Nuts and seeds
Some nuts and seeds contain a significant amount of calcium. Try incorporating chia or sesame seeds into a smoothie, salad, or your morning cereal.
|Almond milk, unsweetened||1 cup||482mg|
|Sesame seeds||1 tbsp||88mg|
|Chia seeds||1 tbsp||78mg|
|Tahini (butter or sesame paste)||1 tbsp||64mg|
How to read food labels
Reading food labels is an important skill if you’re tracking your calcium intake.
Most food labels tell you exactly how many milligrams of calcium are in a serving. But some will only list the amount of calcium as a percentage of the daily value. In this case, you will have to do an easy calculation.
To determine the amount, simply add a zero to the percentage indicated on the label. For example, if a cup of milk contains 30% of your daily intake, it contains 300 milligrams of calcium.
And don’t forget to check the serving size. If you consume more or less than one serving, the amount of calcium will change accordingly. So, if a cup of milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium, a half cup contains 150 milligrams.
Advice for people with lactose intolerance
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in cow’s milk. This happens if you don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase, which helps you break down and digest lactose.
“People who are lactose intolerant may still be able to eat dairy products with less milk sugar, such as hard cheeses and yogurt,” says DiMarino. “Everyone’s tolerance is a little different, so it may take some trial and error.”
Other calcium-rich options DiMarino recommends if you have lactose intolerance include:
- Lactose-free dairy products.
- Calcium-fortified beverages such as soy milk, almond milk, or fruit juices.
- Non-dairy foods such as leafy greens, canned salmon with bones, almonds, and tofu processed with calcium sulfate.
To find out the nutritional content of your favorite foods, the US Department of Agriculture has a handy tool you can use.
When to take calcium supplements
Supplements may be an option if you cannot get enough calcium from your diet. DiMarino recommends talking to your healthcare provider or dietitian before taking any supplement.
There are two main types of calcium supplements:
- Calcium carbonate is best absorbed with food.
- Calcium citrate can be taken with or without food.
Read labels carefully for calcium levels and serving sizes. And remember, your body can only absorb about 500 milligrams at a time. If you need more than that, DiMarino recommends spacing doses out over the course of the day.
How to know if you have a calcium deficiency
Since your bones slowly weaken over time, you may not know if you’re not getting enough calcium. Many people don’t notice any symptoms until a bone breaks.
To prevent osteoporosis-related fractures, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommends a bone density test for women age 65 and older. Health care providers can also screen postmenopausal women under age 65 who are at risk of developing osteoporosis.
The best way to know if you’re getting enough calcium is to pay attention to your diet. By choosing calcium-rich foods, you can protect your bone health now and in the future.