Experts state that most women today do not obtain enough dietary calcium to maintain strong bones and prevent osteoporosis. Calcium is an essential mineral for our bodies, and the strength of our bones and teeth depends on getting enough.

It is especially important to have an adequate intake during the first twenty eight years of our lives, when our bones reach their peak density and our body’s stores of this mineral are laid down. If not, later in life we will be at risk for osteoporosis (thinning and decreased density of the bones). This is one reason why postmenopausal women also need extra calcium, to prevent this disease characterized by brittle bones that break easily.

How Much is Enough?

Our dietary calcium needs change during different stages in our life.

Here is a chart of how our needs change:*

Age _________________Calcium Intake/Day

9 to 18 ______________________1200-1500 mg./day

18 to 50______________________1,000 mg./day

Pregnancy/breastfeeding________1,200 mg./day_

51 and up_____________________1,000-1,500mg./day

*Table based on the NIH panel recommendations for calcium intake for women

Calcium needs are high during adolescence, when bones are growing and bone mass is increasing at a rapid rate. This bone mass will continue to increase until the late twenties in young women, when bone mass peaks.

Pregnancy is another time when calcium needs go up, since the unborn baby is forming bones and teeth. If the pregnant mother doesn’t get enough calcium, the baby will take it from the mother’s stores, including her bones and teeth. This is one reason that a pregnant mother needs at least 1,200 mg of calcium a day.

During Lactation (breastfeeding) calcium needs continue to be high, since the body is storing calcium to produce breast milk. A nursing mother also needs at least 1,200 mg/day of calcium.

How to Get Calcium

Food is the best source of calcium, and is superior to supplements. Dairy products are especially rich in calcium. If calories are a concern, low-fat dairy products contain just as much calcium as regular fat ones, but with fewer calories.

Below is a table with a listing of the calcium content of some foods to help you understand which are good choices. By choosing several servings of calcium rich food each day, most women can get adequate calcium.

Getting the calcium you need*

Food____________________ Calcium

1 cup skim milk________________300 mg

1 cup yogurt _________________400 mg

1 ounce cheese_______________200 mg

1 cup cooked broccoli__________150 mg

1 cup raw spinach_____________100 mg

1/2 cup tofu__________________100 mg

3 oz shellfish__________________100 mg

1 cup kidney, navy beans_______100 mg

*Table Source: Adapted from UPHS Penn Health

Calcium Supplements

Some women also take a calcium supplement to increase their intake. Recent studies show that our bodies can only absorb a certain amount of calcium at one time, so “more” isn’t always “better”. If you decide to take a supplement, smaller doses (of 500 mg. or less) taken several times a day with food are better than one larger dose since the body can’t absorb more than 500 mg of elemental calcium at a time

It is important to avoid supplements that contain bone meal, oyster shell, or dolomite, since those can contain trace amounts of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other toxic metals.

Calcium citrate malate supplements are best absorbed. Calcium carbonate is slightly less absorbed, but is more concentrated and less expensive. Calcium supplements of any type are better absorbed if they are taken with food.

Magnesium (500 mg./day) and vitamin D (400 IU/day ) are also important to promote calcium absorption. Vitamin D is manufactured by the skin through exposure to sunlight (about 15 minutes two to three times a week), or from dietary sources such as fatty fish oils, egg yolks, and liver. Studies have shown that vitamin D levels are lower in the elderly and the homebound than in younger people, so this can become an issue for the aging person.

Lactose Intolerance

One problem that can interfere with getting enough dietary calcium is lactose intolerance. This is caused by a deficiency in the lactase enzyme, which breaks milk sugar down into simpler sugars. The symptoms can include intestinal gas, bloating, or diarrhea.

If you are lactose intolerant, you can get dietary calcium from foods such as fortified juices, cereals, and soy milk. Plant sources of calcium do not contain lactose. Good plant sources of calcium include dark green vegetables, brocolli, and cooked, dried peas and beans.