It’s no secret that calcium is important for bone health. It’s stored in our bones and teeth, providing them with structure and strength. In order to avoid developing osteoporosis and frail bones, two of the most important things we can do are engage in regular activity and ensure we get enough calcium. Compared to other minerals, our daily calcium requirements are very high (adults aged 19-50 need 1000mg/day). Calcium is especially important for men over 70 and post-menopausal women, who start gradually losing bone mass (their requirements go up to 1300mg/day). But calcium isn’t only important for our older population. It’s also very important for pregnant and lactating women, and adolescents, who need to build up their bone mass before they reach peak mass in early adulthood.
Calcium supplements are often recommended to help us reach our calcium needs. Recently, studies looking at the effectiveness of calcium supplements have shown some surprising results. Smaller doses have been shown to provide no protection against bone fractures, but taking higher dose supplements (with 1000mg calcium or more) may increase our risk of certain conditions like heart disease and kidney stones. Because of this, obtaining calcium from food is highly preferable to supplementing.
When we take a calcium supplement, rather than getting our calcium from food sources, we also miss out on all of the other valuable nutrients in a food. Let’s take a high-calcium food like broccoli for example: aside from providing calcium, it also provide lots of fibre, iron, zinc, potassium and antioxidants (amongst other things), and eating it can strengthen the immune system, slow ageing and reduce our risk of a multitude of diseases including diabetes, cancer and heart disease. How’s that for superfood?!
There are many different food sources of calcium. Most people know that dairy foods like milk and yoghurt have calcium, but there’s plenty of other sources out there! These include:
- Green vegetables
- Sesame seeds and tahini (especially unhulled tahini as the hulls contain lots of calcium)
- Blackstrap molasses
- Fish with soft, edible bones (e.g. tinned salmon)
- Dried figs
- Legumes (e.g. kidney beans, chickpeas, soy beans)
- Soy milk and other plant milks (check that they have at least 120mg calcium per 100g added)
- Calcium-fortified orange juice
One of the reasons our calcium requirements are so high is that calcium is not well absorbed by our bodies. For this reason, it’s best to choose more easily absorbed sources of calcium:
- Calcium is most easily absorbed from certain green vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, kale, and Asian greens (e.g. bok choy).
- The next most easily absorbed sources of calcium are dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese) and calcium-fortified soy products like soy milk and tofu.
Various foods can prevent our bodies from absorbing calcium, including salty food, tea and coffee, so it’s best to avoid having large amounts of these, particularly at the same time as calcium-rich foods.
Despite the apparent health risks of calcium supplementation, not getting enough calcium can be more of a health risk than taking calcium supplements. It’s important to weigh up whether or not a calcium supplement would potentially be more useful than harmful for you. This sort of decision is best to make with the help of a dietitian.
Calcium is not the only thing important for strong bones. There are more than 10 other vitamins, minerals and other nutrients involved in bone health. To see how your diet adds up and ensure it’s a bone-healthy one, come in and visit me at the clinic!