Calcium – what a legend. Apart from keeping us upright (bones, gotta love ’em) and giving us teeth, calcium also plays an essential role in the healthy functioning of our heart, muscles and nerves, blood clotting, enzyme regulation, and more. It’s kind of a big deal.
Without adequate calcium we can be at risk of conditions like osteoporosis later in life. This is especially true for women. Our bones act like a ‘calcium bank’ – if we consistently don’t get enough calcium in our diet, our body will take calcium from our bones and use it for essential body functions. If this deficiency isn’t addressed, your bone density will likely gradually decline which could lead to osteoporosis.
Recommended daily intake for calcium
Most of us should be aiming for 1g calcium a day (since that amount is so tiny, we tend to talk in milligrams – i.e. 1000mg). That doesn’t sound like much, but less than half of all Australians meet this recommendation.
Dieting trends that promote the avoidance of dairy could be impacting our calcium intake. There’s also a fair amount of people with lactose intolerance, or who avoid lactose for various reasons – lactose being the carbohydrate found in dairy products.
Dairy products = the best source of calcium
- Milk and yoghurt: ~200 – 400mg per cup (that’s about one fifth to almost a half of our daily requirement)
- Cheeses: ~100 – 200g per tablespoon (hard cheese generally contains more than soft)
Dairy sources not only contain high amounts of calcium but they also contain lactose, which helps with our body absorb calcium.
Seafood that has edible bones (sardines) will be a particularly rich source of calcium.
- Sardines: ~400mg per tin
- Tinned salmon: 170-300mg per tin
- Oysters: 130mg per half dozen
Turnips, broccoli, cauliflower and kale are some of the veggies that provide calcium, with a half-cup providing between around 30 – 80mg (that’s under 10% of your daily requirements).
Legumes and legume products
These guys pack quite a calcium punch. Hard tofu can provide ~400mg per half-cup, while white beans like cannellini beans and navy beans contain around ~70mg calcium per half-cup.
Foods fortified with calcium
Fruit juices, dairy alternatives (e.g. soy milk) and breads can be fortified with calcium. This means that calcium is added to the product.
It’s incredibly important for people who avoid dairy for any reason (vegans, lactose intolerant people, etc) to choose products that are fortified with calcium. As you can see from the listed foods above, without dairy you really need to plan what you’re eating to meet your daily intake for calcium. Fortified foods can make a big difference.
We should never self-prescribe supplements. You might think it’s harmless because they’re available in bulk on our supermarket shelves. Think again. Vitamins and minerals in excess doses can be toxic – leaving you sick at best or dead at worst.
If for whatever reason you think you’ll be struggling to meet your dietary intake of any vitamin or mineral, speak with a health professional (ideally a dietitian or GP) and find out whether you need a supplement or if a simple diet change will do the trick.
Getting enough calcium
I realise this will sound exceptionally boring, but if you’re eating a balanced diet and are meeting the number of serves suggested in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, you’ll be well on your way to getting enough calcium.
Including 3 to 5 calcium containing foods throughout the day is recommended. Some clever ways to get your serves in include:
- Using yoghurt-based dressings
- Add yoghurt or skim milk powder to soups
- Add a small amount of cheese to salads
- Snack on nuts, dried figs and dried apricots – all contain calcium
- Choose products fortified with calcium, especially if you avoid dairy
Reflect on what you’ve eaten in the last 24-hours and consider how many of the above calcium sources you’ve had. If you haven’t had enough, consider whether you can make some simple swaps to your diet that will increase your serves. Decreasing the amount of salt in your diet can also help (the benefits of doing so are endless). If you’re at all concerned, speak with a health professional.
References and further reading
- Australian Dietary Guidelines
- Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism (6th Ed) by S Gropper and J Smith
- Choice: Osteoporosis: the latest on prevention and treatment
- Eat for Health: The Five Food Groups – Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives (mostly reduced fat)
- Nutrition Australia – Dairy foods, how much is enough?
- NIH News in Health – Should you take dietary supplements?
- Osteoporosis.org.au – Calcium