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Calcium, are you getting enough?

What’s the big deal with Calcium? And why bother reading an article about it? Well the answer is that we are not getting enough of it in our diets and this is not ideal.

What is Calcium & Why Do We Need It?

Calcium is an essential mineral involved in many functions in the human body. Our body stores most of its calcium in our skeleton. Alongside other important vitamins and minerals like magnesium, vitamin K2 and vitamin D, sufficient calcium stores are an inarguable determinant of healthy bones. Calcium is also a key player in optimal muscle, neurological and cardiac functioning.

Statistics from the Australian Health Survey show that more than half of the Australian population over two years of age consume inadequate calcium in their diet. More concerning is that just one in ten women above the age of 51 had adequate calcium intake. Inadequate calcium in the diet can lead to diseases such as osteoporosis (brittle bones), which can be life changing especially for the elderly.

Reducing your risk of osteoporosis can be influenced by obtaining and maintaining strong bones. The skeletons most rapid growth period is in childhood and adolescence, with peak bone mass being achieved between 19-30 years of age. After this, our bone mass will slowly and naturally begin to decline. Bone mass is a product of nutrition, exercise, genetics and hormones. Though much of what determines your bone mass is outside of your control, nutrition and exercise are two important factors that you can optimise to give your bones the best protection you can.

To ensure you are maintaining a healthy skeleton you should be aware of the following:

1. Dietary calcium

Print out our “Calcium Quickie” (below) and become savvy on how much calcium you are consuming in your diet. The amount of calcium you need to consume each day is dependent on your age and gender. See what your recommended intake of calcium (text below) and aim to include as many calcium-rich foods as you can.

2. Vitamins K2 and D

Did you know that for calcium to function properly to strengthen the bone, it requires adequate amounts of vitamin D and K2. You can get these vitamins from foods containing saturated animal fats like butter, sardines, organ meats and red meat. It's important to know your vitamin D levels by getting them regularly checked by a doctor.

2. Weight-bearing exercise

Weight bearing exercise such as power walking, stair-climbing and resistance training assist in increasing bone density. If you are new to exercise or have a pre-existing medical condition, please contact a qualified exercise scientist or exercise physiologist before undertaking an exercise regimen. See “Meet out bloggers” for more information.

3. Family history

Be aware of whether bone diseases such as osteoporosis are common in your gene pool. If they are, it may be more important for you to stay on top of your diet and exercise habits to better protect your bones.

4. Life-stage

Children, adolescents and the elderly (71+) require more calcium every day. Women above the age of 51 also have a greater requirement for calcium due to the decreased ability to properly absorb calcium post-menopause.

How Much Calcium Do You Need?

When we talk about calcium-rich foods we talk about ‘serves’. One serve of calcium-rich food is generally equivalent to 300-400 mg of calcium. The population groups that require the most calcium per day (about 4 serves/day) are:

  • 12-18 year olds (male and female) (1300 mg)

  • 51+ females (1300 mg)

  • 70+ males (1300 mg)

Everyone else should consume around 2-3 serves/day (1000 mg), unless otherwise specified by your health professional.

Calcium Content in Food

Calcium content in food varies, it is important to look out for ‘calcium-rich foods’. Dairy products are one of the best sources of calcium. For example; one glass of milk (250ml), tub of yoghurt (200g), 2 slices of hard cheese (40g) or ½ cup of soft cheese such as ricotta. If you do not consume dairy check the non-dairy alternatives to see if they have been fortified with calcium, you will find this information on the nutrition information panel on the side or back of the package. Other foods that contain calcium are canned fish such as salmon or sardines which contain bones rich in calcium, and green vegetables such as broccoli, bok choy or celery. Other non-dairy sources of calcium include sesame seeds, seaweed, Turnip greens, cabbage, spinach, dried figs, almonds and Kale.

Use the “Calcium-Quickie” (below) to help you track the amount of calcium you are getting in your diet. Don’t forget to look at the ‘Amount’ column and adjust the calcium content if you consume more or less than the specified amount. The amount of calcium is given in mg and serves (in brackets).

A Final Word

Be careful of some packaged products fortified with calcium as they might be using this quality to market their “healthiness” while many of these products often contain hidden nasties such as added sugar and preservatives that you might be trying to limit. Check the ‘ingredients list’ of packaged products and aim for a small amount of ingredients that you can identify. Ingredients lists shouldn’t be big paragraphs of gibberish! You should know what is going into your body and if you don’t know what is in a product, don’t buy it.

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