What is calcium and why do we need it?
Milk has long been touted as a necessary source of calcium. We need that daily glass of milk to keep our bones and teeth strong, right? Not exactly! If you’re curious to know what other options you have, you’re at the right place.
Calcium is a mineral that the body needs for numerous functions. Primarily, calcium is required to help the body build strong bones when we’re young and to keep our bones strong as we age. In addition to good bone health, calcium is also involved with the regulation of our heart’s rhythm, the transmission of nerve impulses and the clotting of our blood.
“A calcium deficiency doesn’t lead to symptoms in the short term”
About 99% of the calcium in our body can be found in our bones and teeth, only 1% is found in the blood serum. Serum calcium levels are always steady and don’t fluctuate due to a very quick response mechanism in our body. When serum calcium levels drop, the body will transfer calcium from our bones.
What is the recommended daily intake of calcium?
The recommended calcium intake for adults is 700mg per day.
To be able to absorb calcium, the body needs vitamin D to form calcitriol. Calcitriol is a hormone that promotes the absorption of dietary calcium from the gastrointestinal tract. For this reason, it’s important that your vitamin D levels meet your needs as well. If you’d like to know more about the recommendations for vitamin D, definitely give this a read.
People with a calcium deficiency are often not aware of this as it does not lead to obvious symptoms in the short term. As explained previously, serum calcium is tightly regulated, so when the dietary calcium intake is low, the body will take calcium from the bones to bring it back to an acceptable level. The very first symptom of calcium deficiency can sometimes be an unexpected bone fracture or loss of a tooth.
As we age, we absorb less and less calcium from our diet, causing our bodies to take more and more calcium from our bones. This can eventually lead to osteomalacia (softening of the bones) or osteoporosis (fragile and weak bones) in later life. If calcium deficiency continues over a long time you can have permanent loss of bone that can result in fragility, broken bones, loss of mobility and more!
Which foods contain calcium?
Everyone immediately thinks of milk when we talk about good calcium resources. Milk is a good source, but luckily for people who can’t tolerate dairy, there are many other options as well.
“As we age, we absorb less and less calcium from our diet, causing our bodies to take more and more calcium from our bones”
Foods rich in calcium:
- Dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cheese)
- Green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage)
- Fortified products such as orange juice, plant-based milks and cereal
- Canned sardines or salmon
- Soy products (tofu and tempeh)
- Sesame seeds
- Dried fruits (raisins, prunes, figs, apricots)
How can I increase the calcium levels in my diet?
Most people who include dairy products in their diet, will obtain a sufficient amount of daily calcium. However, vegetarians and vegans or people with a lactose intolerance, could have a deficiency when their diet isn’t varied enough.
Some tips to increase your calcium intake with non-dairy products:
- Green leafy vegetables can easily be added to soups, casseroles, or stir-fries.
- Top salads with canned fish, such as sardines and pink salmon.
- Have a bowl of oats for breakfast and use a fortified plant-based milk.
- Add pulses such as lentils to bulk out plant-based stews or curries.
- Sprinkle salads (or any meals) with sesame seeds or dried fruits such as raisins, apricots and figs.
- Use tahini (sesame paste) to make dips or dressings
Check out our favourite calcium rich recipe - White Bean and Tahini Hummus Topped with Kale Pesto here.