It may come as a surprise to hear that a low intake of calcium is quite common in Australia, with less than 50 per cent of Australians getting the recommended daily intake of this important nutrient.
Calcium is crucial for bone health but also plays an important role in blood clotting and muscle contraction. One of the greatest issues with a low calcium intake over time is that the effects on bone health are not experienced until years later, by which time it can be too late to prevent osteopenia, and osteoporosis or brittle bones, which impacts more than 1 million Australians. So, if you’re not the greatest fan of calcium-rich dairy food, it may be time to pay a little more attention to how much of this important nutrient you are getting each day.
How much calcium do we need?
The average adult requires 1000mg of calcium every single day, and once you reach the age of 50 it is recommended to consume 1300mg, as our absorption decreases as we get older. In food terms, this translates to 3-5 serves of calcium-rich foods every day.
How can I make sure I am getting enough calcium?
If you enjoy dairy, the good news is that all dairy foods are rich sources of calcium with a glass of milk, tub of yoghurt or a slice of cheese offering 200-300m of calcium per serve. If your preference is for plant-based milks such as soy or almond milk, it is crucial you opt for varieties that are fortified with calcium and offer a similar amount as that of dairy milk, or 200-300mg of calcium per serve.
While it is commonly believed that there is calcium in leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, these amounts are relatively small compared to dairy and fortified milks with the average serve of leafy greens or nuts offering just 50-100mg of calcium. There are some new products emerging in supermarkets, such as tuna enriched with calcium, that can offer significantly more than most foods with up to 800mg per serve, which are great options for non-dairy fans.
Who is at risk of not getting enough calcium?
Anyone who does not tolerate, or prefers not to include dairy food in their diet is at significant risk of not getting enough calcium. While plant-based milks are often fortified, you would need multiple serves of this each day plus plenty of nuts, seeds and greens to even go close to getting enough calcium. While nutrients in whole foods are always absorbed more effectively than those found in supplements, if you’re overall intake of calcium is likely to be low, taking a calcium supplement is a good idea.
Older people (aged 70 and up) too are unlikely to get enough calcium, especially if they have a relatively small appetite simply as the requirements are so high. For this reason seeking out fortified milks and yoghurts, which can contain as much as 500mg of calcium per serve can be an easy way to boost your intake.
How can you make sure you get enough calcium?
If you enjoy dairy foods, a milk-based coffee along with a serve of Greek or natural yoghurt and a slice of cheese will easily get you to 1000mg per day. If you are not much of a fan of dairy foods or cannot tolerate them, seek out a fortified almond or soy milk, enjoy your canned fish with the bones and aim for at least a cup of leafy green vegetables every day to help maximise your dietary intake. Other foods particularly high in calcium that you may not have considered include sardines (400mg per serve), dried figs (160mg in 6) and tofu (400mg per 100g).
Is there such thing as too much calcium?
It is possible to have too much calcium, which can be associated with an increased risk of having a heart attack. While this is difficult when you are getting your calcium from your food, you can easily consume excessive amounts of calcium if you take too many supplements. For this reason if you do take calcium supplements stick to the recommended dose of just 500-600mg per day.
It is also important to know that consuming calcium is not enough to ensure good bone health. Vitamin D from sunlight is also important in helping the intestines to absorb calcium from the foods we eat. For this reason maintaining healthy vitamin D levels is also an important step in good bone health.
Glass of milk = 300mg
Glass of high calcium milk = 500mg
Tub of yoghurt = 350mg
Slice of cheese = 150mg
Small can salmon with bones = 200mg
Glass of soy milk = 300mg
Glass of almond milk (fortified) = 300mg
10 almonds = 30mg
½ cup silverbeet = 90mg
½ cup chick peas = 100mg
95g tin calcium enriched tuna = 800mg
Tofu (100g) = 400mg
Author Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.