Nutrient Spotlight: Calcium
You might already know that you need calcium to form strong bones, but there are likely many things that you don’t know about calcium and the important role it fulfills in your body. Here are the top seven lesser-known facts about calcium.
#1: Calcium is important for many functions. In addition to promoting strong bones and teeth, calcium aids in muscle movement and communication between nerves and the brain. It keeps blood vessels healthy and is integral in the release of hormones and enzymes that affect almost all of the body’s many functions. It also plays a key role in blood clotting.
#2: Calcium is actually a metal. It is the fifth most abundant element in the human body, after oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen. It is estimated that our bodies contain about 2 lbs. of pure calcium and 99% of that is found in the bones and teeth.
#3: We are used to thinking of calcium as a nutrient we get from dairy products, like milk, yogurt, and cheese, but kale, broccoli, and Chinese cabbage are also good vegetable sources of calcium. Sardines and salmon are also good sources of the mineral. While grains—like those found in bread, pasta, and unfortified cereals—provide a little bit of calcium, because people often eat so much of these foods, they become a major source of the nutrient. Some foods, like breakfast cereals, fruit juices, soy and rice beverages, and tofu, are fortified with calcium. Reading the label will tell you if the food that you are eating has this important mineral.
#4: How much calcium we need depends on our age. Most adults need between 1,000 and 1,200 mg a day. People between the ages 9 – 18 need the most of all, 1,300 mg!
#5: Getting too little calcium can relate to health problems like low bone mass (osteopenia), which increases the risks of osteoporosis and bone fractures. In fact, if you don’t get enough calcium, your body steals it from your bones and teeth, where it is stored. But getting too much calcium can cause kidney stones and constipation.
#6: Getting the correct amount of calcium has been shown to have beneficial effects, especially in reducing the risk of developing high blood pressure (hypertension). One large study in particular found that eating a diet high in fat-free and low-fat dairy products, vegetables, and fruits lowered blood pressure.
#7: Calcium works best when we get it from a healthy diet. Part of the reason why: calcium’s absorption relies on other nutrients, like Vitamin D. You can find Vitamin D in mushrooms, egg yolks, and canned salmon with the bones. You can also soak some up by getting some sunshine. Vitamin C also enhances the absorption of calcium, and when taken together they can maximize bone strength.
Talk with your healthcare provider or registered dietitian about your diet, your calcium needs, and whether or not you may benefit from a calcium supplement. There is a lot of important information to consider, including how to choose a supplement and how to take one. Getting calcium right is an important part of maintaining your overall health.
Kristin Irace, RD, is a registered dietitian at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington.