Calcium: The Key to Better Bones

People diet to lose weight, to pack on muscle, or to lead a healthier lifestyle. Not many diet to gain calcium…but maybe they should. Most Americans grow up vaguely aware that calcium is good for your bones and important when you are a child. The truth is that this vital mineral not only helps prevent serious bone conditions like osteoporosis but also helps build cells, control blood clotting, maintain healthy soft tissue, and protect your teeth.

You might be surprised by the major role calcium plays in your body. But regardless of age, making sure you get enough calcium is a crucial part of good health.


From The Periodic Table to You

Calcium (known as “Ca” on the periodic table of elements) is a common mineral on planet earth. In its natural form it is a silver-colored metal, but most calcium we encounter is biological. Plants use it to give leaves structure. Crustaceans use it to build their shells. In fact, nearly every creature with an external or internal skeleton uses calcium to build and maintain that skeleton. Deposits where the remains of such creatures have accumulated – think limestone or gypsum – are very rich in the mineral.

Humans need calcium too: about 1 to 2 percent of the adult body weight is calcium, mostly bones and teeth, which makes it the single most abundant mineral in the human body. However, trace amounts also keep cell walls throughout the body functioning, making it a VIP element for biological functions. Calcium is so important that our bodies have developed complex processes for monitoring intake and then altering levels when necessary.

Unlike some nutrients, you can live without calcium for a long time without noticing ill effects. Your body will continue to draw calcium from your bones until its stores decrease. By the time you starting feeling sick, your bones have been weakening for years. This is how osteoporosis can creep up on even well-intentioned adults - especially older women, who tend to have higher calcium needs than older men. Without proper calcium intake, the constant sapping of the mineral creates porous, weakened bones that fracture easily. Breaks, stooped posture, back pain, and height loss are all common problems associated with a lack of calcium. By the time the damage is done, even the best treatments struggle to replace lost calcium.


Key Calcium Foods

Recommended daily amounts of calcium vary depending on age and gender. From about 9 to 18 years of age, 1,300 milligrams is suggested to help maintain bone growth. Levels eventually decrease to 1,000 mg for men and 1,200 for women until the 70s, when 1,200 is recommended regardless of gender. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this means drinking a lot of milk. Milk is still an ideal source, but a number of food groups can be rich in calcium, including:

Yogurt: Yogurt (except for the frozen variety) actually has more calcium per serving than milk, with the plain, fat-free version offering 452 mgs for just 8 ounces compared to the 300-mgs-per-cup levels of milk.

Cheese: Cheese completes the dairy triangle of optimal calcium foods. Swiss, ricotta, and mozzarella all have very high levels of calcium, even skim and low-fat varieties.

Cabbage and Spinach: Remember that leaf structure calcium mentioned earlier? You can find large portions of it in foods like Chinese cabbage and spinach – yet another reason to eat salads. Kale, bok-choy, and other large-leaf foods also have calcium, though not at such high levels.

Fish: Salmon and sardines also have high levels of calcium. The more processed fish becomes, the more calcium it loses. Fresh or naturally canned versions are the best options to supplement your diet.

Beans: White, pinto, and red beans also have calcium in them, though not at the levels of, say, salmon or spinach. Fortunately, beans are a useful side dish for a vast array of meals, making it easy to add in a calcium boost.


Calcium Health Tips

Supplements and Fortified Foods: If you avoid dairy or do not drink much milk, there are many other options for calcium intake. Eat lots of nuts, soy products, and green vegetables. Look for fortified foods where calcium has been added to the product, such as orange juice, cereal, and tofu. If you are desperate for calcium, consider taking a supplement, but be warned – they can cause annoying digestive side effects.

Vitamin D and Phosphorus: Vitamin D and phosphorus both help your body to absorb the calcium it receives, and are just as necessary for healthy bones. Phosphorus is available in most milks and meats, so if you are vegan or heavily restricted in your diet, find other ways to ingest it such as fresh fruit. Vitamin D is more difficult to find, but exists in fish, dairy, and eggs. If you take supplements, look for options that feature vitamin D and phosphorus; both will boost your calcium intake.