Calcium and Bone Health

Eating to Strengthen Bones and Prevent Osteoporosis

Woman slicing swiss cheese

Calcium is a key nutrient that many of us overlook in our diets. Almost every cell in the body uses calcium in some way, including the nervous system, muscles, and heart. It is an essential building block for lifelong bone health in both men and women, and not getting enough calcium in your diet can contribute to anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. Whatever your age or gender, it’s vital to include calcium-rich foods in your diet, limit those that deplete calcium, and get enough magnesium and vitamins D and K to help calcium do its job.

What are the health benefits of calcium?

Among other things, your body uses calcium to build healthy bones and teeth, keep them strong as you age, send messages through the nervous system, help your blood clot, your muscles contract, and regulate the heart’s rhythm. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take calcium from your bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. Calcium deficiency can also lead to, or exacerbate, mood problems such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take calcium from your bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. Calcium deficiency can also lead to, or exacerbate, mood problems such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping.

Despite these vital functions, many of us are confused about calcium and how to best protect our bones and overall health. How much calcium should you get? Where should you get it? And what’s the deal with vitamin D, magnesium, and other nutrients that help calcium do its job? This confusion means that many of us are not getting the recommended daily amount of calcium and approximately one in two women (and about one in four men) over the age of 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis.

Getting enough calcium in your diet is not just important for older people. It’s also vital for children, teens, and young adults since we continue building bone mass into our mid-20s. From then on, we can lose bone mass without sufficient calcium in our diets. But no matter your age, it’s important to take care of your bones and get the right amount of calcium from the food that you eat.

The calcium and osteoporosis connection

Osteoporosis is a “silent” disease characterized by loss of bone mass. Due to weakened bones, fractures become commonplace, which leads to serious health risks. People with osteoporosis often don’t recover after a fall and it is the second most common cause of death in women, mostly those aged 60 and older. Men are also at risk of developing osteoporosis, but typically 5 to 10 years later than women. For most people, osteoporosis is preventable, and getting enough calcium in your diet is the first place to start.

How much calcium do you need?
Age Males Females
Newborn to 6 months 200 mg/day 200 mg/day
6 to 12 months 260 mg/day 260 mg/day
1 to 3 years 700 mg/day 700 mg/day
4-8 years 1,000 mg/day 1,000 mg/day
9 to 18 years 1,300 mg/day 1,300 mg/day
19 to 50 years 1,000 mg/day 1,000 mg/day
51 to 70 years 1,000 mg/day 1,200 mg/day
71+ years 1,000 mg/day 1,000 mg/day
Source: National Institutes of Health

Food is the best source of calcium

Doctors recommend that you get as much of your daily calcium needs as possible from food and use only low-dose supplements to make up any shortfall. Your body is better able to absorb calcium from food than it can from supplements. In fact, studies show that even though people who take calcium supplements have a higher average intake, those who get their calcium from food have stronger bones. Furthermore, using high-dose calcium supplements may increase your risk of kidney stones and heart disease.

Good food sources of calcium

Good sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, certain fish, oatmeal and other grains, tofu, cabbage, summer squash, green beans, garlic, sea vegetables and calcium-fortified foods such as cereals and orange juice.

Good food sources of calcium
Food Milligrams (mg) per serving
Yogurt, plain, low fat, 8 ounces 415
Mozzarella, part skim, 1.5 ouncesCheddar cheese, 1.5 ounces

Cottage cheese, (1% milk fat), 8 ounces

Cheese, cream, regular, 1 tablespoon

333307

138

14

Milk, nonfat, 8 ouncesMilk, reduced-fat (2% milk fat), 8 ounces

Milk, whole (3.25% milk fat), 8 ounces

Soymilk, calcium-fortified, 8 ounces

299293

276

299

Ready-to-eat cereal, calcium-fortified, 1 cup 100-1,000
Sardines, canned in oil, with bones, 3 ouncesSalmon, pink, canned, solids with bone, 3 ounces 325181
Tofu, firm, made with calcium sulfate, 1/2 cupTofu, soft, made with calcium sulfate, 1/2 cup 253138
Turnip greens, fresh, boiled, 1/2 cupKale, raw, chopped, 1 cup

Kale, fresh, cooked, 1 cup

Chinese cabbage, bok choy, raw, shredded, 1 cup

Broccoli, raw, 1/2 cup

99100

94

74

21

Source: National Institutes of Health

Calcium and whole milk dairy: The pros and cons

While milk and other dairy products contain a lot of calcium in a highly absorbable form, there may be some potential downsides.

Whole milk dairy products are often high in saturated fat. Many prominent health organizations recommend that you limit your saturated fat intake and choose low- or non-fat dairy foods, though an increasing body of research shows that eating whole-milk dairy products is linked to less body fat and lower levels of obesity. Low-fat and non-fat dairy products also tend to contain lots of hidden sugar to make up for the loss of taste, which can be far more detrimental to your health and weight than the saturated fat it’s replaced.

Milk can contain high levels of estrogen. Some studies show a possible link between the natural estrogens found in milk and breast, prostate, and testicular cancer. Part of the problem is modern dairy practices, where the cows are fed synthetic hormones and antibiotics, kept continuously pregnant, and milked over 300 days per year. The more pregnant the cow, the higher the hormones in the milk. Organic milk comes from cows that are grass-fed and not given synthetic hormones or other additives, although organic milk can still be high in natural hormones. Because both natural and synthetic hormones are found in the milk fat, skim milk has a much lower level.

Some people are lactose intolerant, meaning they are unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products. Symptoms range from mild to severe, and include cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Beyond the discomfort it causes, lactose intolerance can also interfere with calcium absorption from dairy.

Tips for upping your calcium intake

To boost your daily intake, try to include calcium-rich foods in multiple meals or snacks.

Tips for adding more calcium from dairy to your diet

  • Use milk instead of water when making oatmeal or other hot breakfast cereals.
  • Substitute milk for some of the liquid in soups such as tomato, squash, pumpkin, curries, etc.
  • Milk can be added to many sauces or used as the base in sauces such as Alfredo and Béchamel sauce.
  • Make whole-wheat pancakes and waffles using milk or yogurt.
  • Get creative with plain yogurt. Use it to make a dressing or a dip, or try it on potatoes in place of sour cream.
  • Add milk or yogurt to a fruit smoothie. You can even freeze blended smoothies for popsicles.
  • Enjoy cheese for dessert or as a snack. Try cheddar, mozzarella, Gouda, jack, Parmesan, or a type of cheese you’ve never had before.

Tips for getting your calcium from non-dairy sources

Greens can easily be added to soups, casseroles, or stir-fries. Opt for kale, collard greens, turnip greens, dandelion greens, mustard greens, beet greens, broccoli, and cabbage. Spice up these and other dishes with garlic, basil, thyme, oregano, and rosemary to add more nutrients.

Eat dark green leafy salads with your meals. Try romaine hearts, arugula, butter lettuce, mesclun, watercress, or red leaf lettuce (avoid iceberg lettuce as it has very little nutrient value).

Add extra servings of veggies to your meals, i.e. asparagus, fresh green peas, broccoli, cabbage, okra, bok choy.

Top salads or make a sandwich with canned fish with bones, such as sardines and pink salmon.

Use beans/legumes as part of your meals. They are wonderful in stews, chili, soup, or as the protein part of a meal. Try tofu, tempeh, black-eyed peas, black beans, and other dried beans. You can also snack on edamame.

Start your day with oats. Steel cut oats or rolled oats make a filling breakfast. For an added punch include cinnamon

Snack on nuts and seeds such as almonds and sesame seeds. You can also add these to your morning oatmeal.

Order or prepare sandwiches on whole grain wheat bread.

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