We all need calcium, an essential mineral, to build strong bones and teeth, prevent osteoporosis, assist muscle and nerve function and help blood clotting. Importantly, the blood concentration of calcium must be maintained regardless of our actual dietary intake.
Given 99% of our body’s calcium is stored in our bones and teeth, if we are not getting enough calcium through the foods we eat, we start to draw from our calcium reserves and our bones start to suffer. A serious consequence of diminishing bone mass is osteoporosis, which can result in bone fracture or breaks. In fact, one in two women and one in three men over the age of 60 experience an osteoporotic fracture. Ensuring we are getting enough calcium in our diet when we are younger, therefore safeguards our bones for in the future.
So how much do I need?
Australian nutrient reference values state we need 1000mg/day between the ages of 19-50, increasing to 1300mg/day for adolescents, women over 50 and men over 70 years of age. Yet over 50% of the Australian population are not getting enough calcium and almost 3 in every 4 females are not meeting their daily requirements. We all know that dairy foods (cow’s milk, cheese, yoghurt) are good sources of calcium, with one (250ml) glass of milk, 40g cheddar cheese or 200g yoghurt all providing one serve (300mg) of calcium. Australian
dietary guidelines therefore recommend we consume 2-3 serves of dairy rich foods each day (increasing to 4 serves for post-menopausal women) to help meet needs.
But what if I don’t like or can’t tolerate dairy?
The good news is there are plenty of non-dairy sources of calcium and you can still easily meet your requirements, but you do need to make smart choices. For example, when choosing a milk substitute (e.g., soy, almond, coconut, rice) always check the label to check that is has been fortified to contain at least 100mg calcium per 100ml (brands do vary). Other excellent non-dairy options include canned fish with bones or calcium-set tofu, with a small can salmon or sardines or 100g tofu equating to a glass of milk. Almonds (skin on), sesame seeds (and tahini), dried figs, legumes and fortified foods (e.g., bread, cereal and juice) are also valuable sources. Further boost calcium by eating leafy green vegetables such as kale, watercress, spinach and parsley daily.
Take home message?
Adequate calcium intake is essential for bone development, preserving bone mass and to prevent osteoporosis. Aim for 3 serves (300mg per serve) of calcium rich foods (dairy or plant-based) each day for optimal bone health.