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Calcium is an essential mineral that is well known for supporting bone and joint health. It works synergistically with vitamin D, vitamin K, and magnesium to promote skeletal health. While calcium is often touted as the bone support nutrient, these are all needed together in balance to promote health.
What is Calcium?
Calcium is a macromineral required in larger amounts than other minerals. In fact, it is the mineral that is most abundant in the body. The bones and teeth hold 99% of the body’s calcium stores.
Calcium can be absorbed throughout the intestines. Dietary intake widely impacts a person’s long-term calcium stores. While the body will pull what it needs from bones to keep serum levels balanced, over time, if dietary intake is inadequate, bone health will suffer. It can take years or even decades for this to show, so focusing on optimal dietary intake promotes healthy bones and teeth. Eating foods that are high in fiber, like vegetables, can increase calcium absorption by slowing transit time in the intestines.
Health Benefits of Calcium
- Maintains the structure of bones and teeth
- Promotes healthy cell signaling
- Supports normal vascular contraction and dilation
- Supports bone health and can reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life
- Promotes healthy hormone levels
- Reduces risk of preeclampsia in pregnancy
- Promotes normal muscular function and can reduce muscle cramps
- Supports healthy nerve transmission
Food Sources of Calcium
Calcium is found in a wide variety of foods, and even though dairy products are commonly associated with it, there are plenty of dairy-free foods that contain calcium.
Foods high in calcium include:
- Yogurt, cheese, milk, and other dairy products
- Sardines (bone-in)
- Turnip greens
- Chia seeds
- Bok choy
Calcium is a common dietary supplement. The typical forms that it may be found in include calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Carbonate requires consumption with food for optimal absorption, but citrate can be taken independently of food and still be absorbable.
Calcium requires time in the intestinal tract to be absorbed. A low-calcium diet isn’t corrected by taking a supplement if digestion and absorption are not optimized. Fiber helps to promote calcium absorption by acting as roughage, slowing transit time, and allowing the body to take in more during the digestive process. This is true for foods and supplement sources.
Diets that contain enough calcium don’t require supplementation. Excessive calcium supplementation can result in constipation, as well as other potential health risks. Some studies have linked calcium supplementation with increased risk for heart attack or prostate cancer, but not all research replicates these results. Unless you are being directed otherwise by a qualified healthcare practitioner, it may be prudent to avoid supplements that bring your daily total for calcium higher than the tolerable upper limit.
In the US, younger women are more likely to come up short in calcium intake, whether from food or supplements, and older women are most likely to get too much. Older adults are often advised to take supplements because calcium absorption decreases with age. The advice to take calcium supplements when older, to protect bone health, will not fix bone density issues. Gut health, absorption, and other bone-supportive nutrients also need to be considered, like vitamin D and vitamin K.
People who are at greater risk for deficiency of calcium include:
- Those who eat a high-sodium diet
- People with chronic kidney disorders
- People with alcohol abuse disorders
- People who have low vitamin D or magnesium levels
- Vegetarians or vegans
- People who follow a lactose-free diet
(PPNF Note: When available, nutrition counseling is the best way to determine the supplements that are right for you. We understand that it is not always affordable or accessible. When taking supplements, follow recommended product guidelines unless a practitioner directs you otherwise.)
Today’s Simple Step
Have you stopped and considered your daily calcium intake lately? If not, it’s beneficial to track your foods and supplements for a day to see what you’re averaging. This can be a great way to determine if you need supplemental support.
This Kale and Pomegranate Salad is a wonderful way to get some dietary calcium with fiber and vitamin K.