Healthy Eating Series: Are You Getting Enough Calcium in Your Diet?

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We’re all told that we need calcium for strong bones, but calcium has a powerful role to play in many other key systems of your body – not just your bone health.

So, if you’re not consuming and absorbing enough calcium, you can put yourself at risk for some serious health complications.

Luckily, calcium is easy to come by and this article shows you how to get enough of it in your daily diet.

What is Calcium?

According to Brooke Miles’ Ted Talk, calcium is “an element on the periodic table…it’s formed during supernova explosions in space. It’s also the fifth most abundant element on the earth’s crust.” Dr. Weil’s tells us that it makes up “about three percent of the earth’s crust and is a basic component of most animals and plants.”

When it comes to the human body, calcium is considered a trace mineral, and it’s more present in our body than the other trace minerals, like zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper. Calcium is actually believed to take up two percent of our body weight!

Why Does Our Body Need Calcium?

As we can see, calcium is a necessary element not only for human bodies but for many living things on this planet. Otherwise, it probably wouldn’t be such an abundant mineral here on earth. But why does your body need it so much?

We already know that calcium is a key component for healthy bones and teeth. In fact, most of the body’s calcium – 99 percent, to be precise – is stored in the bones and teeth, but it also shows up in bodily tissues, too.

What else is calcium needed for? Calcium supports muscle contraction and function, as well as cardiovascular health, which includes, blood pressure, blood clotting, cholesterol levels, and heart rhythms. Calcium is also an essential nutrient for things like nerve conduction, as well as hormone and enzyme secretion.

Studies are also emerging showing that when calcium and Vitamin D work together, they can help the body protect itself from serious health threats, like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Calcium also helps to regulate other trace mineral levels in the body. Magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus are all kept in check thanks to the presence of calcium.

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Signs of Calcium Deficiency

Your body doesn’t produce calcium, but it needs quite a lot of it. Your skeletal system and cardiovascular system depend on it, as do many other areas of your health.

Unfortunately, a study reported that over a five-year period, only 32 percent of American adults got enough calcium. This could mean that the vast majority of Americans are calcium deficient without even realizing it.

To be sure that you fall into this category, look out for these signs of calcium deficiency:

  • Fatigue, lethargy and overall weakness
  • Numbness or tingling in fingers
  • Higher risk for osteoporosis
  • Higher risk for heart disease
  • Weak, frail and porous bones
  • Bone fractures
  • Complications with blood pressure, blood clotting, and heart rhythms
  • Developmental delays in children
  • Preeclampsia in pregnant women

Without enough calcium in your body, your body will head straight to your bones and take the calcium from your bones and teeth. This can lead to brittle bones, fractures and ultimately, osteoporosis.

People with the Highest Risk of Calcium Deficiency

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are three groups of people who are most at risk for developing a calcium deficiency.

Who are they? Children, adolescent girls, and postmenopausal women. We should include pregnant women and their risk of preeclampsia, too.

Even if your diet contains calcium, your body might not be able to absorb it. Individuals with low magnesium and Vitamin D levels can also have a difficult time absorbing the calcium in their diets.

The Best Food Sources for Calcium

Experts agree that the best place to obtain your calcium is through healthy foods. And you probably believe that the best source of calcium comes from cows.

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This is true because cows consume calcium-rich plants, and the calcium then shows up in their milk.

But calcium doesn’t really come from cows. It comes from the plants they eat. It’s possible to meet your calcium needs with dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy products, but dairy isn’t the only source.

In fact, there are several plant sources that are more calcium-dense than milk. They include the following foods:

  • Fresh and dried herbs, such as basil, parsley, and thyme
  • Sesame, flax and chia seeds
  • Almonds and Brazil nuts
  • Tahini
  • Firm tofu
  • Sardines and salmon, especially if they’re canned because than the bones become edible
  • Garlic
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Dark, leafy green vegetables, such as collard/turnip greens, Bok choy, kale
  • Okra
  • Oatmeal
  • Certain beans, such as chickpeas, white beans, kidney beans, and winged beans

Other excellent sources of calcium include broccoli, mustard greens, figs, hazelnuts and pistachio nuts, spinach, seaweeds (like kelp and wakame), as well as fortified food cereals.

The Best Ways to Absorb the Calcium in Your Diet

To ensure that your body absorbs calcium, include magnesium in your diet. It’s a key player when it comes to calcium absorption.

Remember to eat calcium-rich foods together magnesium-rich foods to optimize absorption. Magnesium-rich foods include dark leafy greens, bananas, dried fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fish, avocados, yogurt, beans and yes, even dark chocolate!

Vitamin D is also a necessary nutrient for adequate calcium absorption. Fortified food sources are all good places to obtain enough Vitamin D, especially in climates where sunlight is minimal.

How Much Calcium Do You Need?

The National Institutes of Health offers the following recommended amounts for calcium, depending on the age of the individual:

  • Babies 0-6 months: 200 mg (If they are breastfeeding, they are probably obtaining the perfect amount of calcium)
  • Babies 7-12 months: 260 mg
  • Children 1-3 years: 700 mg
  • Children 4-8 years: 1,000 mg
  • Children 9-13 years: 1,300 mg
  • Teens 14-18 years: 1,300 mg
  • Adults 19-50 years: 1,000 mg
  • Adult men 51-70 years: 1,000 mg
  • Adult women 51-70 years: 1,200 mg
  • Adults 71 or above: 1,2000 mg
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding teenagers: 1,300 mg
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women: 1,000 mg
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Should You Take a Calcium Supplement?

Since Calcium is so crucial to a healthy cardiovascular and skeletal system, you never want to be calcium deficient. This might lead you to believe that a calcium supplement will also keep your calcium levels high.

But too much calcium in the body can cause problems, too. According to Dr. Axe, excess calcium can lead to digestive upsets, like nausea, bloating, abdominal pain and constipation.

Kidney stones, a dry mouth, and even heartbeat irregularities can also be the result of too much calcium in your system.  For men, too much calcium could lead to a higher risk of prostate cancer.

So, it’s better to get just enough calcium, rather than too much. To determine whether or not you should start taking a calcium supplement, speak to your primary care physician and make an informed decision that supports your body’s nutritional needs.

Do Vegans and Vegetarians Get Enough Calcium?

Because most available literature about calcium informs us that dairy products are the best places to obtain calcium, vegans and vegetarians may wonder if they’re at a risk for becoming calcium deficient.

As we now know, milk products are a very popular calcium food source, but they’re definitely not the only source of dietary calcium.

Those who follow an animal-free diet can choose from many diverse plant sources (see the list above) to obtain their calcium.

Calcium is a crucial nutrient for a strong and healthy body. Luckily, there are many whole food sources for this trace element. Do you think you’re getting enough calcium in your diet? If not, what foods can you introduce to support your body’s nutritional needs?