You know the saying, “There’s no use crying over spilled milk.” But missing out on the vital calcium milk provides may be a reason for a few tears.
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Calcium is an essential mineral that keeps your bones and teeth strong. It’s also necessary for many of your body’s functions, such as muscle movement, blood clotting and nerve signaling.
Your body can’t make calcium — it must come from your diet. And according to registered dietitian Anthony DiMarino, RD, many Americans aren’t getting enough calcium.
Your diet may not contain the calcium you need
“There’s a movement away from dairy products due to a rise in lactose intolerance and plant-based diet patterns,” DiMarino says. “People who don’t eat dairy or have higher calcium requirements should be more vigilant about getting enough calcium every day.”
Recommended dietary allowances for calcium
The amount of calcium you need varies by your age and sex. In general, children, women who are post-menopause and adults over age 70 need more calcium. “As you grow older, your body absorbs less of the calcium in your diet,” explains DiMarino. “For women, hormonal changes during menopause can sap calcium from your bones.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the recommended dietary allowances (RDAs) for calcium in milligrams (mg) are:
|0-6 months||200 mg|
|7-12 months||260 mg|
|1-3 years||700 mg|
|4-8 years||1,000 mg|
|9-13 years||1,300 mg|
|14-18 years||1,300 mg|
|19-50 years||1,000 mg|
|51-70 years (men)||1,000 mg|
|51-70 years (women)||1,200 mg|
|71+ years||1,200 mg|
How calcium deficiency affects your health
Most of the calcium in your body is stored in your bones and teeth. There’s a smaller amount in your blood and tissues.
Your body works hard to maintain a steady level of calcium in your blood. If your blood level falls because you’re not getting enough calcium in your diet, your bones will release calcium to bring the level up.
Over time, this process can weaken your bones and lead to:
- Osteoporosis: This condition is most common in older adults. It involves a loss of bone mass and an increased risk of fractures. Most people don’t have osteoporosis symptoms until a fracture occurs.
- Rickets: This childhood disease causes skeletal deformities and delayed growth. Usually, rickets is due to vitamin D deficiency, but it can also result from low calcium.
Foods that are rich in calcium
Many foods can help increase calcium in your diet, even if you have lactose intolerance or eat a vegan diet. Try eating a variety of these foods to meet your daily calcium requirements:
Milk and dairy products are among the best calcium sources. Just a few servings per day can give you all the calcium you need. When choosing dairy products, don’t forget to look at the calories, fat and sodium, which can be high in some dairy foods.
|Vanilla yogurt (low-fat)||8 ounces||388 mg|
|Milk, 1%||1 cup||310 mg|
|Ricotta cheese, whole milk||1/2 cup||289 mg|
|Greek yogurt, plain (low-fat)||8 ounces||261 mg|
|Cottage cheese, 2% fat||1 cup||227 mg|
|Cheddar cheese||1 ounce||200 mg|
Vegetables and fruit juices
Leafy greens and broccoli are excellent sources of calcium. Generally, fruits aren’t calcium-rich, but some juices are fortified. This means the manufacturer has added calcium to the product. Fortified orange juice has more calcium than a glass of milk.
|Orange juice, calcium-fortified||1 cup||349 mg|
|Collard greens, cooked||1 cup||268 mg|
|Spinach, cooked||1 cup||245 mg|
|Bok choy, cooked||1 cup||158 mg|
|Kale, cooked||1 cup||177 mg|
|Broccoli, cooked||1 cup||62 mg|
Some proteins, such as tofu with added calcium sulfate, and canned fish with bones, are high in calcium. You may need to read the labels closely to decipher which foods can deliver your daily calcium dose.
|Tofu, prepared with calcium sulfate||1/2 cup||434 mg|
|Sardines, canned, with bones||3 ounces||324 mg|
|Soy milk, fortified||1 cup||299 mg|
|Black beans, canned||1 cup||239 mg|
|Salmon, canned, with bones||3 ounces||181 mg|
Grains aren’t usually rich in calcium but are an important part of a balanced diet. Some breads and cereals are fortified and can be a great option for boosting your calcium intake. Check packaging and labels to find fortified options that you might enjoy.
Nuts and seeds
Some nuts and seeds contain a robust amount of calcium. Try incorporating chia or sesame seeds into a smoothie, salad or your morning cereal.
|Almond milk, unsweetened||1 cup||482 mg|
|Almonds||1/4 cup||92 mg|
|Sesame seeds||1 tablespoon||88 mg|
|Chia seeds||1 tablespoon||78 mg|
|Tahini (sesame butter or paste)||1 tablespoon||64 mg|
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’ll have to do a calculation.
The percent of the daily recommended value is based on 1,200 milligrams of calcium. If the exact milligrams of calcium aren’t listed, you’ll need to determine the amount based on the percentage. For example, if one cup of milk is listed as 25% of the daily recommended value, then 25% of 1,200 is 300, so it has 300 milligrams of calcium.
And don’t forget to check the serving size. If you consume more or less than a serving, the amount of calcium will change accordingly. So, if one cup of milk has 300 milligrams of calcium, a half-cup contains 150 milligrams.
Tips for people with lactose intolerance
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in cow’s milk. It occurs if you don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase, which helps you break down and digest lactose.
“People with lactose intolerance may still be able to eat dairy products with lower levels of milk sugar, such as hard cheeses and yogurt,” says DiMarino. “Everyone’s tolerance is a little different, so it might require 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 juice.
- Nondairy 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture has a handy tool you can use.
When to take calcium supplements
Supplements may be an option if you can’t get enough calcium in your diet. DiMarino recommends talking to your healthcare provider or dietitian before taking a supplement.
There are two main types of calcium supplements:
- Calcium carbonate is absorbed best with food.
- Calcium citrate can be taken with or without food.
Read the labels carefully to find out the calcium levels and serving size. And remember that your body can only absorb about 500 milligrams at a time. If you need more than that, DiMarino recommends spacing out the doses during the day.
How to know if you have calcium deficiency
Since your bones weaken slowly over time, you might not know if you aren’t getting enough calcium. Many people don’t notice any symptoms until a bone fractures.
To prevent fractures related to osteoporosis, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends bone density screening for women age 65 and older. Healthcare providers may also screen postmenopausal women under 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 into the future.