Milk, cheese & yogurt

What does it do?

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. So it’s no surprise that it has many important functions. Calcium’s primary role is to build strong bones and teeth. Calcium helps muscles contract, nerves transmit signals, blood clot and blood vessels contract and expand. These functions are so important that your body will extract calcium from your skeleton if you aren’t getting enough from your diet.

What are the best food sources?

Milk, cheese, yogurt, calcium-set tofu (tofu prepared with calcium salts; check the label), kale and broccoli are all good sources. If you are worried about the fat content in dairy foods, choose low-fat and fat-free versions, which are usually no different in their calcium content.

You may have heard that calcium from vegetables is not as available to your body as calcium from dairy sources. This is true to some extent. Calcium is poorly absorbed from some vegetables and beans, such as spinach, sweet potatoes, rhubarb, red beans and pinto beans. For example, just one-tenth of the calcium from spinach is absorbed compared to that from milk sources. However, just as much calcium is absorbed from vegetables in the kale family (broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, mustard greens) as from milk sources. While this is good news, keep in mind that some vegetables contain more calcium per gram than others. For example, you would have to consume much greater amounts of broccoli to get the same amount you might get from kale.

What happens if you don’t get enough?

Chronically low intakes of calcium can contribute to the development of osteoporosis, a condition of increased bone fragility that can up your risk for bone fracture. In the United States each year, 1.5 million fractures are associated with osteoporosis.

Growing individuals (infants, children and adolescents) who do not get enough calcium will be unable to achieve optimal levels of bone mass, thus putting them at increased risk for osteoporosis as they age.

You may be wondering, are there any signs of calcium deficiency before someone develops osteoporosis? Unfortunately, one of the reasons that osteoporosis sneaks up on you is because simple dietary deficiency produces no obvious symptoms.

What happens if you get too much?

Excessively high intakes of calcium from supplements have been shown to cause kidney stones and poor kidney function. High levels of calcium can also prevent your body from absorbing other minerals properly, such as iron, phosphorus and zinc.

How much do you need?

The following table lists the recommended intake for healthy people based on current scientific information.
Life Stage Group Age Range Recommended Dietary Allowance/Adequate Intake Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL)
Infants 0-6 mo. Not determinable for infants due to lack of data on adverse effects in this age group and concern about inability to handle excess amounts. Source should be from food only to prevent high levels of intake.
Infants 7-12 mo. Not determinable for infants due to lack of data on adverse effects in this age group and concern about inability to handle excess amounts. Source should be from food only to prevent high levels of intake.
Children 1-3 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Children 4-8 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Males 9-13 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Males 14-18 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Males 19-30 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Males 31-50 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Males 51-70 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Males > 70 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Females 9-13 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Females 14-18 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Females 19-30 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Females 31-50 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Females 51-70 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Females > 70 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Pregnancy < 18 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Pregnancy 19-30 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Pregnancy 31-50 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Lactation < 18 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Lactation 19-30 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
Lactation 31-50 yr. 2,500 milligrams/day
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