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Why is it Important to Get Plenty of Calcium in Your Diet?
By Danielle Omar, RDN
Calcium is a super important mineral and many people assume they’re getting enough, but this often isn’t the case. In my nutrition practice I find that most people aren’t getting the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) per day from their diet. Which makes sense when almost half of all Americans aren’t getting enough calcium, either.
Wondering if you’re at risk? If you fit into one of these categories, you just might be:
- Peri-menopausal and post-menopausal women
- Women with irregular menstrual cycles
- Vegetarian, vegan and dairy free eaters (many plant-based foods are high in phytates and oxalates that inhibit calcium absorption)
- Pregnant women
- Those taking medications such as H2 blockers or proton pump inhibitors antacids (which can inhibit absorption) or glucocorticoids like prednisone that can increase calcium loss
- Those with a vitamin D deficiency (vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption)
What Does Calcium Do?
You’ve been hearing your whole life that calcium builds strong bones and teeth, but it’s also needed for many other processes in the body. It plays an important role in blood clotting, muscle contraction, and regulating your heart rhythm and nerve function.
In order to do its job, the body has to keep a steady amount of calcium in the blood and tissues. If levels drop too low in the blood, parathyroid hormone (PTH) signals the bones to release calcium into the bloodstream. That’s right, your bones are your body’s calcium reserve! So the less calcium you get from your diet, the more it will have to pull from your bones to get it. And while this “borrowed” bone calcium may be replaced down the road, it’s not really that simple, nor is it a great plan for the long term.
Okay, now that you know why it’s super important to make sure you’re getting enough calcium on a daily basis, how much is really enough?
How Much Calcium do You Need?
Most men and women need about 1,200 mg of calcium intake a day (you may need more than that if you don’t absorb calcium well or have other health issues).
How to Get Calcium from Food
I always recommend getting nutrients from foods first, especially calcium. Because it’s hormonally absorbed, taking more doesn’t mean you actually absorb more. And while supplements are great (and absolutely play a role in bone health), they don’t contain the phytonutrients found naturally in foods that help to optimize absorption. Minerals tend to compete for intestinal absorption and transport, so getting them in the amounts found naturally in food improves bioavailability.
Here’s What to Eat to Get 1,200 mg of Calcium in a Day
A green smoothie made with one cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk, one cup spinach, one cup blueberries, ¾ cup tofu (fortified with calcium), 1 tablespoon lemon juice and ¼ teaspoon of cinnamon.
Kale salad with 2 cups of chopped kale, a sliced apple, 1 oz of almonds, 1 tablespoon of pumpkin seeds, ⅛ cup dried cherries, and 2 tablespoons of vinaigrette dressing (add your protein of choice)
Greek yogurt parfait with 6 oz. plain Greek yogurt, 1 cup sliced strawberries and 2 tablespoons ground flax seed
5 ounces broiled salmon with grilled asparagus spears, cherry tomatoes and 1 cup brown rice.
Total calcium 1240 mg
How to Improve Calcium Absorption
Remember, calcium isn’t easily absorbed. The body won’t allow all the calcium you ingest (from food or supplements) to be absorbed by the body. That said, to improve absorption, you’ll want to make sure to get plenty of vitamin D! Fortified foods like milk, and tofu help, as does salmon. You also want to make sure to get outside in the sunlight for at least 20 minutes per day. If you live in the Northern regions or have darker skin, it may be important to supplement your calcium with vitamin D.
Another consideration when it comes to calcium is your magnesium intake. Remember when I said that minerals compete for intestinal absorption and transport? Well, while magnesium and calcium work together, they also impede absorption of the other.
The same receptor sites that regulate calcium also impact magnesium. This means when taken together, too much magnesium blocks calcium absorption and too much calcium blocks magnesium absorption. Crazy, right? This is why current evidence supports taking more frequent, lower doses of calcium (with meals if using calcium carbonate), and avoiding doses above 250 mg at one time. This strategy helps ensure better magnesium absorption and better calcium absorption, especially it taken together.
There are other things that impact calcium absorption, too. Caffeine and some medications (like anticoagulants, cortisone, and thyroxine) reduce calcium absorption in the body. Lack of exercise and vitamin D deficiency also lead to decreased calcium absorption.
This is why I prefer to use FitFormula’s supplemental Calcium + Vitamin D. Since they come in easy-to-use packets, I can add to recipes and divide the dose in servings. I also like that I can sprinkle a bit from one of the packets into my herbal tea or stir it into yogurt or chia seed pudding.
My Mint Chocolate Peanut Butter energy bites are a super easy (and delicious!) way to get your calcium in a divided dose. I used 5 packets in this recipe, which provides a balanced 250 mg calcium per bite, depending on the size :)
Here’s how I made them:
Mint Chocolate Peanut Butter Energy Balls
1 cup pitted Medjool dates
1 cup raw cashews
1 tablespoon ground flaxseed
3 tablespoons cacao powder
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
2 tablespoons cacao nibs
5 packets Fit Formula Calcium + D packets (unflavored)
Process dates and cashews in a food processor until they resemble coarse sand. Add the cacao powder, calcium + D powder, flaxseed, peanut butter and mint extract. Process until a dough forms. Add some MCT oil or water if too dry. Add cacao nibs and pulse until well combined. Form balls with your hands. Store in a covered container in the freezer or fridge for best results.