Are you getting enough calcium?

When you hear the word 'calcium', you probably think of healthy bones, however it is also vitally important for the correct functioning of other body processes including nerve transmission, muscle contraction and secretion of hormones. We actually have more calcium in our body than any other mineral and its presence is essential to sustain life, but are you getting enough and could your diet and lifestyle be affecting how much calcium your body is actually absorbing? 

Although many of us do consume adequate amounts of calcium in our diet, there are certain people in the population who don’t. Research has shown that most teenage boys and girls don’t consume enough calcium and therefore fail to meet the governments recommended guidelines for calcium intake. This is a major problem as it can lead to severe health implications in later in life, especially osteoporosis. This is a real concern as we know that 90% of bone tissue that makes up the skeleton is formed by around the age of 18 in girls and around age 20 in boys. In other words, if we don’t get enough calcium before this age we are severely compromising our bone health! 

Calcium and vitamin D go hand in hand, because without Vitamin D calcium cannot be absorbed by the body. It is therefore a worry that Vitamin D levels in 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 children in the UK are low, which means although we might be actually consuming calcium, our bodies may not be able to absorb it which can lead to deficiency. 

Who is most at risk of calcium deficiency?

The recommended daily intake of calcium for UK adults is 700mg, it’s 800mg for adolescent females, and 1000mg for adolescent boys (aged 11-18). There are also sub groups of the population that are particularly at risk of calcium deficiency and whom require higher amounts of daily calcium. These include:

  • Post-menopausal women   (1200mg daily)

  • People who suffer with coeliac disease   (1000-1200mg daily)

  • Breastfeeding women   (1250mg daily)

  • People with osteoporosis (1000mg daily approx.)

If you don’t eat many of the foods discussed below, then your diet is most probably a poor source of calcium so you too may be at risk of deficiency.

Which foods are high in calcium?

There are many calcium rich foods available, but in the UK diet most of our calcium (45%) is consumed through milk and milk products including yogurts, butter and cheese.  Another high source of calcium consumption in the UK diet comes from cereal based products which are mostly fortified with calcium and contribute 27% of our calcium intake. A little caution must be given here about buying products that state they are ‘fortified with calcium’, as there is some debate as to whether this fortified calcium is absorbed by the body as well as calcium that occurs naturally in foods. It is therefore always best to make sure you include foods that are naturally high in calcium rather than just relying on fortified foods.

There are many great foods that are rich in calcium so you should find something that tickles your taste buds below:

  • Dairy products – The biggest source of calcium and probably the most versatile in all its forms. Cheese, milk and yogurts can easily be had at any time of the day from milk on your cereal, cheese sandwiches at lunch a yogurt for desert and a cup of cocoa at bedtime! And if for any reason you’re looking to cut cows’ milk and its associated products out of your diet, you might like to try Delamere Dairy’s goats’ milk (and cheese, butter and yogurts) as a naturally nutritious alternative.

  • Sardines & tinned salmon – Considering we are an island, we are not really a nation of fish lovers, but we really should be because sardines and tinned salmon (with bones) are a good source of calcium and make a healthy quick lunch when put on toast!

  • Kale – What was once a large part of a cow’s diet is now classed as a superfood for humans. Kale is full of antioxidants as well as calcium, as are other green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and cabbage. Steam them, add them to salads or smoothies, or heat them with a small knob of butter and a sprinkling of pepper.

  • Beans – Many beans are full of calcium, especially white beans. Navy beans and black eyes beans are also a high source, so get adding them to casseroles, salads and soups.

  • Dried figs – For those with a sweeter tooth this is a good option.

Did you know that some foods, drugs & illnesses can reduce or block calcium absorption?

You might physically be getting enough calcium in your diet, but you may be unaware that some of the other foods you are consuming can actually reduce or even block calcium absorption in the body. Foods high in salt / sodium can greatly increase calcium loss in the bones, so if you eat a high salt diet your calcium levels could well be compromised. Smoked foods and processed foods in particular are often loaded with salt, so try and choose low salt options and if that isn’t possible make sure you increase calcium rich foods in your diet to make up for the loss.

A naturally occurring substance called Oxalates which is found in many foods including spinach, figs, berries tea, rhubarb, beets, nuts, quinoa and cocoa has also been shown to reduce calcium absorption. These oxalates bind with calcium in your intestine and instead of being absorbed, they pass right through you and are excreted in your stool. Caffeine has also been shown to increase the secretion of calcium in urine, so if you are a big coffee drinker (4-8 cups a day), especially if you have other risk factors for osteoporosis, it is advisable to cut down on your caffeine intake.

People who take corticosteroids, which are anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed for a range of conditions, are also at high risk of calcium depletion as corticosteroids decrease calcium absorption in the intestines and increase its excretion by the kidneys. People taking these drugs long term are usually prescribed calcium and vitamin D supplements by the doctor, but if you are taking them on a short term basis make sure your diet is naturally high in calcium and vitamin D to replace what is lost.

People with coeliac disease require a higher intake of calcium compared to the general population (1000mg daily as opposed to 700mg - adults). This is because the lining of the small intestine is damaged in people with coeliac disease which means the normal nutrient absorption that takes place there is massively impaired due to the damage.

Is your lifestyle affecting how much calcium you get?

We all know we should be physically active and exercise regularly to maintain our health, but did you know that exercise also increases our body’s ability to absorb calcium (just in case you needed another reason to get to the gym!!).   Both weight-bearing activity and aerobic exercise, which gets the heart pumping, have been shown to have positive effects on calcium absorption in the body. In fact people who are more physically active have a 20-40% reduced risk of hip fracture compared to sedentary people, so I think the message here is get moving now!!

Is a calcium supplement needed?

It is always best to get your nutrients, including calcium, from food sources, however there can be times when this is not possible or when prescribed medication or health conditions might make supplementation a requirement. This should ideally be advised upon by your GP, because consuming too much calcium is dangerous. Calcium supplementation has been shown to have serious consequences on heart health including increased risk of stroke and heart attacks. Calcium consumed naturally through food however, does not increase this risk like supplementation does.  Whether you are taking a calcium supplement or getting it naturally in your diet, it’s important to know that calcium is best absorbed when taken in smaller amounts of 500 – 600 mg or less, rather than in one big hit.  Calcium supplements should also be taken with food to aid its absorption.   

 

RESOURCES:

  • Children’s bone health and meeting calcium needs, 2008. Journal of Family Healthcare

  • Evidence for an acute rise of intestinal calcium absorption in response to aerobic exercise, 2011. European Journal of Nutrition.

  • National Diet and Nutrition Survey: UK food consumption and nutrient intakes from the first year of the rolling programme and comparisons with previous surveys, 2011. British Journal of Nutrition

  • Advice for Improving your Calcium Intake. NHS trust Foundation.

  • Effect of calcium supplements on risk of myocardial infarction and cardiovascular events: meta-analysis, 2010. British Medical Journal

 

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