Get the Scoop on Calcium
Learn why calcium is important, how to get more in your diet, and how to help your body absorb the calcium it takes in.

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Picture of milk pouring in a glass Get the Scoop on Calcium

When you're young, you may not worry about what will happen in your 50s, 60s, and beyond. Those years - and the threat of osteoporosis - seem a lifetime away. The truth, though, is that bone health is important at all ages.

Bone is dynamic tissue. It breaks down and builds back up. The calcium you take in is absorbed into your bones, where it provides structural support. Bone also stores calcium for use throughout the body in blood clotting, muscle contraction, and other vital functions. When your body needs calcium, it steals it from your bones. Calcium from your diet helps restore bone supplies.

You build most of your bone mass before your teen years. Between the ages of 12 and 18, girls reach 42 percent of their total bone mass. Both men and women reach peak bone mass by age 30. After that, bone is not replaced as readily. If you use more calcium than you take in, especially as you get older, your bones can become thin, brittle, and weak.

If you follow good nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle practices throughout your life, good bone health will be a natural result. Nutritionally, you need two things for healthy bones: calcium and vitamin D.

How much calcium do I need a day?
The daily amount of calcium experts recommend for healthy people is:

  • 700 mg for ages 1 to 3
  • 1,000 mg for ages 4 to 8
  • 1,300 mg for ages 9 to 18
  • 1,000 mg for ages 19 to 50
  • 1,200 mg for women and 1,000 mg for men ages 51 to 70
  • 1,200 mg for men and women ages 71 and older

What are sources of calcium?
Nonfat or low-fat dairy products are good sources of calcium. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all adults and children ages 9 to 18 should have 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy products daily. A cup is equal to any of the following:

  • 1 cup (8 fluid ounces) of milk
  • 8 ounces of yogurt
  • 1 1/2 ounces of natural cheese, such as Cheddar
  • 2 ounces of processed cheese, such as American

Nondairy foods that are high in calcium include Chinese cabbage, kale, sardines, and broccoli. Plus, you can buy calcium-fortified juices and cereals. Calcium is also sold as a supplement. Check with your doctor before you add calcium supplements to your diet.

How can I get more calcium?
There are ways to raise your calcium level without taking a supplement. To start, be sure to get plenty of vitamin D in your diet. It helps your body absorb calcium.

Here are six ideas for getting more calcium:

  1. Drink a glass of nonfat or low-fat milk with meals.
  2. Use nonfat or low-fat milk instead of water in recipes for pancakes, puddings, mashed potatoes, or instant cereals.
  3. Sprinkle grated low-fat cheese on salads or pasta dishes.
  4. Create a fruit smoothie with low-fat or fat-free yogurt.
  5. Serve a yogurt-based dip with raw fruits and vegetables.
  6. Spread calcium-rich foods throughout the day. Your body can't absorb more than 500 mg of calcium at a time.

What is the role of vitamin D?
Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption.With out enough vitamin D, the body can't absorb and deposit calcium in the bones.

The human body makes its own vitamin D when radiation from the sun interacts with a chemical in the skin. Vitamin D is also found in some foods, including:

  • Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna
  • Fortified foods (look for the word "fortified"), such as milk, yogurt, and some orange juice and breakfast cereals
  • Supplements, such as vitamin D products alone, multivitamins, or calcium supplements with vitamin D

The daily amount of vitamin D experts recommend for healthy people is:

  • 600 IU (international units) for ages 1 to 70
  • 800 IU for ages 71 and older

If you think you aren't getting enough vitamin D, talk to your doctor. Some people need to take supplements. But don't assume that more is better. High doses of vitamin D can be harmful.

By Diane Griffith, Staff Writer
Created on 05/24/2005
Updated on 05/06/2011
Sources:
  • American Dietetic Association. Calcium.
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Osteoporosis overview.
  • Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. Dietary supplement fact sheet: calcium.
  • Office of Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health. Dietary supplement fact sheet: vitamin D.
  • Institute of Medicine. Dietary reference intakes for calcium and vitamin D.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans 2010.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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