At some point in your life you’ve probably heard the slogan ‘Milk, it does a body good.’ Catchy, isn’t it? It’s also true. Milk is chock-full of several essential vitamins and nutrients, including calcium.

In this installment of our Simple Food Terms Explained series, we get to know more about calcium and why it’s so important, no matter what age you are.

What Is Calcium?

Calcium is a mineral that’s essential to good health, and the one that’s found in the most abundance in the human body. It’s more commonly known for building strong bones and teeth, but it plays an important role in other parts of the body as well. The body also uses calcium to secrete hormones, send messages through the entire nervous system, and make muscles and blood vessel expand and contract.

How Much Do I Need?

The amount varies depending on your age, but the average recommended amount for teens and adults is around 1,300 mg a day. Dietary and health concerns can also make this amount fluctuate, so you should check with your doctor to ensure you’re getting the amount that’s right for you.

You also want to make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamin D while you’re at it because without it, the body can’t absorb the calcium properly. Think of the two as a pair. Milk contains vitamin D as well as calcium — just one more reason to drink up!

What Happens If I Don’t Get Enough?

Since the body uses calcium for so many of its functions, when it can’t get enough from the bloodstream, it goes for the storage units — your teeth and bones. Low calcium levels can be known to cause an increase in muscle cramps. Continuously low levels of calcium can lead to weakened bones and teeth, and increase your risk for breakage and osteoporosis.

In extreme cases of severely low blood calcium, you could experience abnormal heart rhythms, numbness or tingling in your fingers, or even convulsions. This is usually in extreme cases though, and is generally associated with people undergoing certain medical procedures, or who have serious medical issues.

On the other hand, you can also get TOO much calcium in your diet, though this is typically only an issue if you’re taking calcium supplements. Having more than the recommended amount in your body can possibly lead to kidney stones, reduced ability to absorb other nutrients like zinc or iron, constipation, and other related issues.

Where Can I Get Calcium From?

Dairy products are the best sources of calcium that you can find. This can be hard for people who are lactose intolerant, but the choices for lactose free products are becoming much more readily available nowadays.

If you can’t, or prefer not to consume dairy, there are still other foods that are good sources of calcium for you. Dark green vegetables as well as soft-boned fish are great sources. The idea of the soft bones is that you can easily consume them and absorb the calcium from them, so don’t pick the bones out!

Soy products are good sources of calcium as well, such as tofu or soy milk. Grains can also be a good source of calcium. While they aren’t exactly rich in the mineral, we often consume them in great enough amounts that the mineral intake can add up.

Manufacturers have also started adding calcium to a lot of other food products, such as cereals and beverages like fruit juices or milk alternatives — rice or nut based, for example. It’s a good idea to check the labels of the products you buy to see if they have calcium added — choosing brands that do will help you make your daily intake levels, if you’re having trouble meeting that goal.

What’s The Best Way To Add More Calcium To My Diet?

While taking a multi-vitamin supplement can help increase your calcium intake, it’s often recommended that you get most of your calcium from foods. Choosing food items that have calcium added can help tremendously — if you’re already buying it anyway, it’s not a change you have to adjust to in your diet.

Adding more dairy to your dishes is another way to increase your intake. Cheese and yogurt are obvious additions, and there are a lot of meals you can slip these into easily. You can also use dairy as a substitute in recipes — milk in place of water or other liquids, yogurt as dips or salad dressings, for example — and increase your intake that way. Even if you’re lactose intolerant, there are still plenty of lactose free options available to you, and the selection is increasing every day. There are also dairy options that are low in lactose naturally — harder cheeses and items made from goat’s milk come to mind here.

Lastly, don’t forget the vegetables and fish! Adding broccoli to a pasta or rice dish can brighten it up. Kale can make a great addition to your normal salad, and grilled salmon can make a great main dish. And all are great sources of calcium.

Sources:

https://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bone/Bone_Health/Nutrition/

http://www.medicinenet.com/muscle_cramps/article.htm

http://www.medicinenet.com/vitamins_and_calcium_supplements/article.htm