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Diet and Nutrition

Calcium: Essential for All Ages

Why is calcium important for all age groups?

As children, we heard the message "drink your milk" from our parents, teachers, and others. One reason for this public health message is that dairy products are excellent sources of calcium, a mineral that is essential for the development of strong bones and teeth during our growing years. Just as importantly, calcium is needed for the maintenance of dense bones throughout our adult years. When our diet does not supply enough calcium to meet the body’s needs, calcium is taken from our bones, increasing the risk of porous, weak bones, bone fractures and osteoporosis. In addition to bone health, calcium plays critical roles in blood clotting, nerve transmission, muscle contraction and blood pressure. Calcium’s roles in cancer prevention and weight management have been investigated recently, but more evidence is needed to draw sound conclusions.

How much calcium do I need?

Even though we recognize the importance of calcium in our diets, the majority of children, teens and adults do not consume the recommended amount. Children ages 9-18 years have the highest requirement for calcium - 1300 milligrams (mg) per day. Adults under age 50 should include 1,000 mg of calcium per day in their diet, while older adults should consume 1200 mg per day to minimize bone loss. The safe upper limit is 2500 mg of calcium per day, unless prescribed by your health care professional.

How can I take in the recommended amount of calcium?

Always read food labels when searching for nutrient-rich foods. The amount of calcium in one serving of a food item is listed as a percentage of the Daily Value of 1,000 mg of calcium. So if the label states "Calcium.........20%", one serving contains 200 mg of calcium.

Cheese, yogurt, and milk are excellent sources of calcium, supplying approximately 300 mg per cup of milk/yogurt and 200 mg per ounce of cheese. Low-fat dairy products have as much calcium as the full-fat versions. Green vegetables such as turnip greens, kale, and broccoli are good sources of calcium with 30-100 mg per ½ cup. Note that spinach and Swiss chard provide little calcium due to binders that do not allow the calcium to be absorbed. Foods that are fortified with calcium (meaning that calcium has been added), such as fortified juices, soymilk, tofu, cereals, breads and bottled water, provide varying amounts of calcium. Try to include sources of calcium in your snacks and meals throughout the day since calcium is absorbed best when taken in smaller amounts. For optimal calcium absorption, include sources of vitamin D in your diet or exposure to ultraviolet light.

For those who cannot digest dairy products well due to lactose intolerance, eat small amounts of dairy products or try lactose-free products or lactase enzyme tablets. If your diet does not contain enough calcium, you can take over-the-counter calcium supplements. These supplements are available in a wide range of forms (even chewable), strengths, brands, and prices. Remember to discuss any calcium supplements that you are taking with your health care professional since they can interfere with the absorption of medications, such as specific antibiotics.

This article originally appeared in Nutri-bytes (January 2010), a service of the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing and was adapted for use on NetWellness with permission.

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Last Reviewed: Jan 06, 2010

Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD Bonnie J Brehm, PhD, RD
Professor of Nursing
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati