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Calcium: foods, benefits & RDA

Siski Green / 19 February 2021

Calcium is important for bones and teeth, and it's particularly important for our bone health as we age.

Calcium sources of milk and cheese
You may need to take calcium tablets to supplement your diet

You may think you know all you need to about calcium – even young children are often aware of this nutrient as they’re told it’s good for strong teeth and bones – but there’s more to calcium than just that. It’s involved in many processes in your body, including muscle movement, your circulation and even hormone production.

What is calcium used for?

Most people who take calcium supplements do so to protect their bones and teeth. Women after menopause, especially, can lose bone density over time and men also need to up their intake, after the age of 70, to protect bones.

Calcium is also used by the body to release insulin, regulating your muscles, and also your circulation.

What do we know about calcium?

Calcium is necessary for so many processes within your body that if you don’t get enough, your body will leach calcium from your bones in order for you to continue functioning. And as the body can’t produce calcium itself you need to ensure you get enough from your diet.

Once a woman goes through menopause a drop in oestrogen production can mean that bones become thin and brittle – this is called osteoporosis. Ensuring a diet rich in calcium helps prevent this. There is, however, not sufficient evidence to support the idea of taking calcium supplements over getting plenty of calcium via diet.

Calcium deficiency can be a result of illnesses such as pancreatitis hypoparathyroidism, for example, along with low levels of vitamin D, certain medications such as corticosteroids, and genetic disorders. People who follow a strict vegan diet who do not pay attention to calcium content of their foods may also find they become deficient.

What’s the best way to take calcium?

Dietary sources are ideal and these include dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt), green vegetables such as leafy greens and broccoli, beans such as soya, edamame, white and black, sardines, also foods that have been fortified with calcium (juices, cereals, breads).

If, however, you feel you are not getting enough from your diet, calcium supplements are available. Taking calcium in smaller doses (less than 600mg) will help prevent digestive problems associated with taking larger doses in one sitting (especially without food).

Something to be aware of, however, is that unlike some other nutrients, calcium will not benefit you unless you also get sufficient vitamin D. Without it, your body won’t absorb the calcium. This is especially important for those with darker skin tones as vitamin D levels will be naturally lower with the same amount of time spent in the sun (NB vitamin D supplements can be useful in this scenario).

There are two types of supplements you’ll find available: calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate should be taken with food so it’s more readily absorbed by the body. Calcium nitrate can be taken at any time and is slightly more easily absorbed by the body, so is preferred by people with sensitive digestive systems.

Does calcium really work?

Calcium is essential to health but taking supplements may not provide any benefits to you. Getting calcium via diet is ideal. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough in this way, talk to your doctor about taking supplements. As calcium supplements mean taking a large amount in one go, there is concern about how the body processes it. Some research has suggested that this could contribute to heart diseases.

There has also been suggestion that calcium supplements might increase your risk of heart disease but current research has not been able to prove this conclusively.

Need to talk to a GP from the comfort of your own home? Saga Health Insurance customers can talk to a qualified, practising UK GP 24 hours a day by phone. Find out more about our GP service.

Where can I get calcium?

You should aim to get around 1,200mg daily (women) 1000-1200 (men, starting later with the higher dose at age 70). A cup of milk contains around 300mg of calcium, 200g yogurt provides around 200mg, a cup of cooked spinach contains 120mg, a cup of edamame beans contains around 150mg, prunes contain 75mg per cup, an orange will give you 45mg, and just one dried fig contains 13mg.

Supplements are available at healthfood stores and supermarkets, or online.

How long does calcium take to work?

Calcium needs to be taken daily to work properly. If you miss a dose, your body won’t suffer immediately but you should try to get back on track the following day as your body uses calcium quickly – and if you become deficient, your body will take the calcium from your bones.

What are the side effects of taking calcium?

Calcium supplements can cause constipation, gas, bloating and indigestion. If taken on an ongoing basis, calcium supplements can also lead to kidney stones and hypercalcemia.

Are there any contraindications when taking calcium?

Check with your doctor before supplementing with calcium. Upping your intake of calcium via foods should not be a cause for concern, however. Some medications also decrease your body’s ability to absorb calcium which could lead to a deficiency. Check with your doctor.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.