Calcium – Are you getting enough?

Bone-calciumHow long do you want your bones to last? The obvious answer is “a lifetime”. And the good news is that it may be possible. But, like just about everything else in life, you get out what you put in!

Consisting of proteins and minerals – mostly calcium – bones are living tissue in a constant state of flux. They are like a bank account where you make deposits and withdrawals to suit your needs. Only in this case, the currency is calcium, the mineral that gives bones their strength and structure.

Most of the calcium you consume is stored in your bones. The remainder is used to support such critical functions as:

  • Maintaining a normal heartbeat – Calcium from milk products and heart healthy bacteria in yogurt may play a role in reducing blood cholesterol. Some research suggests that certain types of fat found in milk also help reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • Regulating blood pressure – Calcium, especially from milk products, has been shown to control blood pressure. A normal blood pressure is good for overall heart health.
  • Colon cancer – Calcium and vitamin D can play an important role in reducing the risk of colon cancer. Fermented milk products, such as yogurt and buttermilk, provide added protection. Some preliminary research also shows some milk fats may help in reducing the risk of this type of cancer.
  • Dental Health – Milk products, especially firm cheese (e.g. Cheddar, Swiss, Mozzarella, Edam, Monterey Jack and Brie), help prevent cavaties. Enjoying a fruit and cheese platter after a meal is a good thing.
  • PMS (premenstrual syndrome) – Some preliminary research has indicated that calcium may reduce symptoms such as bloating, fatigue, irritability, abdominal cramps and back pain.
  • Enabling muscles to contract and relax and blood clotting

Not Enough Calcium?

When you consume too little calcium to fuel these body functions, the blood “steals” what it needs from the bone bank. When more calcium is withdrawn than deposited, bones weaken and may eventually break … and the price is diminished quality of life. Since bones that “spend” more calcium than they save may end up fractured – the ultimate bankruptcy – clearly, sufficient calcium intake is one of the best investments you can make in your bones’ future.

Osteoporosis actually means “porous bones”. And, that’s exactly what it is: a disease in which bone gradually loses its mass, becoming brittle, fragile and very prone to fracture. The spine, wrist, and hip are most susceptible. Apart from the obvious pain and disability of broken bones, changes in body shape may also occur. People who appear to have shrunk with age or who are stooped and hunched over are not simply victims of bad posture; these deformities result when the bones in the spinal column crumble from lack of strength.

Approximately 1.5 million Canadians suffer from osteoporosis: one in every four women and one in every eight men over age 50. Like high blood pressure, osteoporosis is silent. It progresses without symptoms, often remaining undetected until a fracture occurs. That’s why understanding the risks and striving for prevention is so important.

The Hard Facts about Bones

  • The first two decades of life are prime bone-building years. That’s why it’s so important for teens to get sufficient calcium.
  • Bone strength peaks during the mid-20s.
  • Bone loss usually begins during the mid-30s, accelerating rapidly in women at the onset of menopause when production of estrogen (which helps maintain calcium balance in the bones) declines. This rapid bone loss usually lasts about five to ten years.
  • The combination of a well-balanced diet – rich in calcium- regular exercise and a healthy lifestyle is important to maintaining healthy bones.

Build Better Bones with Calcium, Exercise, and a Healthy Lifestyle

The Osteoporosis Society of Canada recommends a dietary intake of calcium of:

  • 1 – 3 years: 500 mg/day
  • 4 – 8 years: 800 mg/day
  • 9 – 18 years: 1,300 mg/day
  • 19 – 49 years: 1,000 mg/day
  • 50 + years: 1,200 mg/day

Remember that not all calcium sources are created equal. The amount of calcium the body absorbs is determined by its source. Milk products are an excellent choice. Studies show that when you avoid milk products, you may be short-changing your calcium intake.

Equivalents of Absorbable Calcium

Food (cup) Calcium Mg of Calcium Absorbed Servings to Replace Milk
Milk (1) 315 101.1 1
Almonds (½) 200 42.4 2 13
Broccoli (½) 38 20.0 5
Red Kidney Beans (1) 52 8.8 11 ½
Spinach (½) 129 6.6 15 13


If you’ve been looking for one more reason to get in shape, reducing the risk of osteoporosis is a mighty powerful motivator. In addition to weight training and brisk walking, try hiking, dancing, golf, climbing stairs, bowling, skating, and cross-country skiing. (Remember to consult your doctor before embarking on an exercise program.)

Get enough vitamin D (from fortified milk, mackerel, eel, herring, salmon, sardines, eggs, and liver); don’t smoke (studies show that smokers have low bone mass and are twice as likely to facture their spines and hips as non-smokers); consume alcohol in moderation (alcohol abuse has been identified as a significant risk factor in developing osteoporosis); watch your salt intake (sodium increases calcium loss); limit your caffeine consumption (caffeine increases calcium loss).

Can’t Tolerate Milk?

If you are one of those people who can’t handle milk and milk products without suffering from stomach cramps, bloating, gas and diarrhea, you may have a shortage of lactase enzymes necessary to digest the lactose sugar. Left undigested, lactose sugar ferments in the gastrointestinal tract and causes the unpleasant symptoms. The degree of lactose intolerance varies from person to person, from mild to severe. Sometimes it is only a temporary condition that develops after a bout of severe diarrhea. Research shows that even people with severe lactose intolerance can tolerate up to 1 cup/250 ml of milk with a meal. So try using small amounts of milk throughout the day.
Here are some other tips for getting enough calcium if lactose intolerant:

  • Try lactose-reduced milk (found in the milk section of most grocery stores). It’s 99% lactose free; use liquid lactase drops (found in drugstores) to make lactose-reduced milk at home; or take lactase enzyme tablets (also found in drugstores) at meals containing regular milk or milk products. These tablets take the worry out of dining away from home.
  • Try small servings of aged cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss, brick, Camembert, Limburger and Parmesan. These cheeses contain very little lactose.
  • Eat yogurt. The bacteria in yogurt produce lactase enzyme, which continues to digest lactose even after the yogurt is eaten.
  • If you are severely intolerant, drink a plant-based beverage such as a fortified soy or rice beverage in place of milk. Look for a product that is enriched with vitamins A, D, B12, riboflavin, calcium and zinc.

About Winsome Dewar

Winsome Dewar, RHN, RNCP is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist. She is the author of The Healthy Options Healthy Eating and Weight Loss Plan® and the host of Rogers TV’s cooking show – Cooking with Winsome.

2 Responses to Calcium – Are you getting enough?

  1. Winsome March 6, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

    I am so happy to hear that you found the article informative. Hopefully, it will prompt you to get enough calcium and vitamin D. Healthy bones are really important, especially as we get older.


  2. Mark February 28, 2013 at 12:37 am #

    Wow! Great article with lots of useful information.
    Being someone that does not particularly enjoy milk, although I am not lactose intolerant, I appreciate the alternatives mentioned to ensure enough vitamin D is consumed.

    Will be certain to increase my intake.


Leave a Reply