For most of us when we were kids, we were told to drink milk for strong bones and teeth! It wasn’t so much the milk that did that, but the calcium in the milk that helped us to grow. But as we get older, for many, our diets change and less calcium is consumed. Some people don’t even think it is necessary anymore as they are fully grown. But calcium is important for everyone. As we age, however, our calcium absorption starts to decline and so does bone density. Which is why it’s important to kick up the calcium in your diet (along with vitamin D!).
What is calcium and what does it do?
Calcium is an essential mineral that is one of the most common and possibly one of the most important, as almost all of it (99%) is in our bones and teeth (1). We wouldn’t be able to stand or chew without it. But it is not only vital for bones and teeth. It also plays other important roles in the body such as regulating muscle contractions including the heartbeat, helping nerves to function and blood to clot. Too little calcium can cause rickets (in children) leading to bone deformities, or osteoporosis and osteomalacia in adults.
How to get calcium in your diet?
There are many sources of calcium, including foods suitable for vegetarians and vegans. These are the main sources of calcium, but there are many other food that contain calcium too:
1. Dairy foods – yoghurt, milk, cheese and other dairy products; eggs
2. Fish where you eat the bones – tinned salmon, sardines, pilchards
3. Green, leafy veg – broccoli, kale, okra (not spinach)
4. Plant-based – firm tofu, tinned soybeans, chickpeas, dried figs, oranges, chia and poppy seeds, almonds, brazil nuts and walnuts
5. Fortified foods – cereals, breads and plant-based milk that has been fortified
Note – Although most of the fruit, veg, nuts and seeds listed above contain good amounts of calcium, many of these contain oxalates and/or phytates and should not be relied on as a sole source of calcium.
Did you know?
Low fat dairy has the same, if not more calcium than regular full fat dairy, including skim milk.
Everyone needs calcium in their diet, and for some, it is more important than others. If you are struggling to get calcium into your diet, here is a 2-day meal plan example to help you kick up the calcium in your daily intake. Of course, you don’t have to have loads of calcium with each meal, but this shows you how it can be done:
|Meal||Day 1||Day 2|
|Breakfast||Low fat Greek yoghurt with mixed berries and almonds||Fruit smoothie made with milk or yoghurt and chia seeds|
|Morning Snack||2 Rice cakes with low-fat cottage cheese and cherry tomatoes||Dried figs and almonds|
|Lunch||Salmon (tinned) and potato fishcakes with horseradish and lemon kale slaw||Broccoli and light cheddar frittata or crustless quiche|
|Afternoon Snack||1 boiled egg with a handful of kale and an orange||Low fat plain yoghurt with fruit of your choice|
|Dinner||Paneer and chickpea curry with wild rice||Asian Tofu and noodles|
(if you insist)
|Baked peaches with ricotta and walnuts||Small rice pudding or custard with sliced pear|
For children or elderly people who prefer softer foods, (or I’m sure for many adults who just simply enjoy these foods) some additional options include custard, cheese triangles, rice pudding, fromage-frais, hot chocolate and milk chocolate.
Make sure not to have any caffeinated drinks with your calcium-rich foods as this can block calcium absorption. More on this below.
How much calcium should you have daily?
Calcium levels differ between gender and different age groups, so it is important to adjust this accordingly. For adults, both men and women, the UK guidelines suggest 700mg. Calcium supplementation is recommended for those not getting enough through the diet. Other groups require different amounts as listed below:
|Group||Age (years)||Calcium (mg) per day|
|Children||1 – 3|
4 – 6
7 – 10
|Women past menopause||Adult||1200|
|Coeliac Disease||Adult||at least 1000|
|Inflammatory Bowel Disease||Adult||1000|
|Post menopausal women and Men over 55 years||1200|
Can you have too much calcium?
The answer is yes, although this is unlikely to happen through food intake and more likely if you over supplement. So it is important to follow the recommended dose and guidance. If you do take too much, you may experience signs of nausea, stomach pain and diarrhoea.
Calcium blockers and how to improve your calcium absorption
There are some foods that can act as a blocker to calcium, affecting its absorption. These include alcohol and caffeine. Unfortunately, many of us consume caffeinated drinks or alcohol when we eat. But it is important to space this out, especially if your meal contains calcium-rich foods in order to absorb as much calcium as you can. Try having herbal tea with breakfast if this contains dairy or other calcium foods, and save the coffee for a little later. Also, take note of salt. Adding too much salt may interfere with calcium absorption too, as when salt is eliminated from the body, it takes calcium along with it (2).
As mentioned early on, some calcium-rich foods contain oxalates and/or phytates which also interfere with absorption. Rhubarb, spinach and beans contain oxalates which reduce calcium absorption, but only from the food it is in. You can still eat these, but the amount of calcium absorbed won’t be as high. However, many seeds and nuts contain phytates which lower the absorption from foods when eaten in combination.
To help with calcium absorption, protein and vitamin D can help. Make sure to take at least 400 IU of vitamin D daily and get 10-20 minutes of sunshine when you can.
The Final Word
Calcium is an essential mineral which is important for healthy bones and teeth, but also the muscles, nerves and blood. It is found mostly in dairy foods, but also green leafy veg, tofu, nuts and seeds and fortified grains and milks. Adults should aim for 700mg per day to ensure they meet their calcium needs. This should be ideally through the diet, but supplements can be taken to help. Avoid having alcohol or caffeine with calcium-rich meals for better absorption.