Designated by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the 2015 theme for National Nutrition Month is “Bite into a Healthy Lifestyle.” Choosing tasty and nutritious foods in proper serving sizes along with adequate physical activity is important in staying healthy and avoiding chronic disease. This month, let’s focus on “food bites” containing calcium and its role in keeping us active and healthy — no matter our age or activity level.
A mineral found in many foods, calcium is known for its storage in bones and teeth where it supports their structure and hardness. But, we also need calcium for muscle movement and for effective nerve transmission between the brain and every part of the body. In addition, calcium is used to help blood vessels move blood through the body and assists in the release of hormones and enzymes affecting many functions. The amount of calcium needed varies with age, but the current guideline for women and men over 70 years of age is 1200 mg/day. Certain groups of people are more likely to have trouble getting enough calcium. Those groups include:
- Postmenopausal women
- Those with lactose intolerance who cannot digest lactose
- Vegans (vegetarians who eat no animal products)
- Ovo-vegetarians (vegetarians who eat eggs but not dairy)
The best advice: choose a variety of foods that provide calcium including:
- Milk, yogurt and cheese – 8 oz. of milk = 300 mg calcium
- Kale, broccoli, Chinese cabbage and dark green leafy vegetables
- Fish with edible soft bones such as canned sardines and salmon
- Legumes including black-eyed peas and white beans
- Some breakfast cereals, fruit juices, soy and rice beverages, and tofu have calcium added. Check labels for calcium
Other factors affecting the amount of calcium absorbed in the digestive tract include:
- Age because efficiency of calcium absorption decreases with age.
- Vitamin D intake, present in some foods and produced in the body when skin is exposed to sunlight, increases calcium absorption.
- Other components in food such as oxalic acid and phytic acid can reduce calcium absorption.
There are no obvious symptoms to indicate low calcium levels since the body maintains these levels in the blood by taking it from bones. Long term impact of calcium intake below recommended levels can cause low bone mass (osteopenia) and increased risk of osteoporosis (bones becoming porous, fragile and prone to fracture), a major health problem for more than 10 million adults over age 50 in the US.
Calcium dietary supplements vary depending on type and amount of calcium used, along with the use of other nutrients such as vitamin D. Before considering a supplement, consult with your doctor, pharmacist or registered dietitian as it may interact or interfere with prescribed medications.
Information source for this article: “Eating Well as You Get Older: Benefits of Eating Well” (National Institutes of Health. Senior Health) Topic last reviewed: November 2014.