Other than its role in strong bones, there are several facts about calcium that you need to know. Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our body, adding about 2 pounds to the average female’s scale; 99% of it is found in our bones and teeth. Calcium plays many roles in your body. Therefore, ensuring that you are getting enough, especially considering we only tend to absorb 10-40% of the calcium that we consume in our diet, is very important! Calcium plays a role in many body functions, such as muscle contractions, nerve transmission, hormonal balance and bone and teeth development and maintenance, just to name a few! Here are 7 facts about calcium that will aid and encourage more than just strong bones!
1. You Can Get Calcium without Dairy
One of the facts about calcium that most people don’t know is that you can get calcium through foods other than dairy. Contrary to popular belief due to all of the "Got Milk” campaigns, you actually don’t have to down a single glass of milk to get all of the calcium that you need. While dairy foods like milk, yogurt and cheese are very high in calcium, plant based foods like almonds, kale, oranges, collard greens, spinach, broccoli, figs, sesame seeds, and tofu are all great sources of calcium too. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium for most women under the age for 51 is around 1000 mg per day, which can easily be met through the above foods.
2. It is Not the Only Mineral You Need for Strong Bones
Calcium is certainly known for its function in developing strong bones and teeth, but did you know that many other vitamins and minerals contribute to the strength of your bones as well? Although 99% of calcium is stored in your bones and teeth, there are several other nutrients that all play a role in maintaining healthy bones and teeth, in particular, phosphorous. Your body is always trying to maintain a phosphorous/calcium balance. If you consume too much phosphorous (think dark sodas, meat and diary), your body will try to make up for this by pulling calcium from your bones to return to equilibrium (as if you needed another reason to avoid soda!). A few other key nutrients in maintaining strong bones and teeth include magnesium, zinc, and fluoride.
3. Vitamin D is Required to Absorb It
You can eat all of the calcium rich foods in the world, but without adequate vitamin D your body will never absorb the calcium. Calcium and vitamin D work together to keep your bones strong. The RDA for vitamin D for middle aged women is 600 IUs per day. You can find vitamin D in salmon and mushrooms and in fortified foods such as cereals, orange juice and nondairy milks. Another way to increase your vitamin D levels is through natural sunlight. Depending on your skin color and geographic location, about 15 minutes of sun a few times per week will provide adequate vitamin D. As a mostly vegan myself, during the winter months in particular, I take a vitamin D supplement to ensure that I am getting enough. This is a supplement that you might want to talk to your doc about taking!
4. Calcium Absorption is Also Affected by Phytic Acid and Oxalic Acid
There are several foods that actually have the ability to block your body's absorption of calcium. Both phytic acid (phytates) and oxalic acid (oxalates) interfere with calcium absorption. You can find these particular acids in several different plant based foods, such as grains, beans, potatoes, spinach, collard greens, beets, sweet potatoes, okra, etc. These acids bind to the calcium, forcing it to be excreted rather than absorbed for your body's use. Since many of these foods are rich sources of calcium too, this is another reason why it’s important to ensure that you are consuming enough calcium rich foods: only 10-40% is actually absorbed!
5. You Need More Calcium if You Are Postmenopausal
If you are female approaching or beyond the menopausal years then you will need even more calcium than the rest of us! During menopause, your estrogen levels drop significantly. This hormonal shift increases your chances for several disease, one being osteoporosis. This is a good time to increase your calcium (and vitamin D) consumption in order to prevent any further bone loss. Aim for around 1,200 mg per day.
6. Calcium Blocks Iron Absorption
Regardless of whether you are more worried about your calcium levels or your iron levels, try not to consume one with the other. Calcium and iron compete for absorption in the intestine when consumed together, so be sure to eat foods containing these nutrients (or take supplements) at least 2 hours apart for best absorption. Iron is found mostly in animal proteins such as beef, chicken, oysters, turkey, and salmon, but some plant based foods like lentils, beans and spinach also contain a less absorbable form of iron. If you take a multivitamin, be sure not to take it with any of these foods in order to prevent the absorption of calcium from your multi too.
7. Calcium and Magnesium Are Best Friends Too
Just like calcium and vitamin D are good friends, calcium and magnesium are great friends too! Calcium and magnesium work together to maintain the normal contraction of your muscles. Before you start thinking that since you don’t work out or have big muscles, you don’t need this dynamic duo, think again! Your heart is a muscle too, meaning that every single heartbeat is controlled with calcium. This is showing yet again that without adequate calcium, we simply can't live!
When it comes to staying healthy, calcium is a nutrient that we can’t afford to skip on. A well-balanced, well-planned diet can provide all of the calcium that we need, however, if you feel that you cannot meet these needs, don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor or dietitian to help you find ways to better meet these needs! With all of the absorption interactions, it can be quite confusing to remember it all! How do you ensure that you are getting enough calcium?