Calcium: keeping your bones strong and healthy

Calcium is one of the main nutrients responsible for bone formation with approximately 99% of your body’s calcium found in your bones and teeth.  Calcium’s strength and abundance within your body allows it to serve many functions, not only for your bones but also for your muscles, nerves and hormones.

Why is calcium important for bone health?

Calcium is important in giving bone its rigidity, structure, strength and elasticity. However, calcium is not alone in the bone making process; vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption so if either are missing, bones become thin and brittle.

Which foods contain calcium?

You can ensure you have a dietary intake rich in calcium by including dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese.  If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, plant sources rich in calcium include legumes, almonds, green leafy vegetables, tofu and fortified plant milks.

How much calcium do I need?

The amount of calcium recommended is around 1,000mg per day for people aged 19 to 50 years.  This can usually be met by consuming 3-5 serves of calcium-rich foods each day. Calcium requirements significantly increase after menopause and as we head into older age (up to 1,300mg per day), as calcium isn’t absorbed as effectively.

Who is at risk of calcium deficiency?

Women are of greater risk of calcium deficiency than men, especially as age increases. This is because during menopause, oestrogen levels decrease causing bones to breakdown at a higher rate than they can be made.  Menopause results in average bone losses of approximately 2% each year.

Those with a family history of osteoporosis may have a lower than normal bone mineral density and be prone to fractures and breaks.  Additional calcium intakes may be beneficial in these cases.

People with low calcium intakes due to dietary preferences, food intolerances or a poor appetite may also be at risk of calcium deficiency.

Furthermore, as we age, we become more prone to falls, and so bone fractures and breaks are more common. This can be due to hormonal factors as well as dietary factors, such that as we age, appetite may decline resulting in a decrease of daily calcium or vitamin D intakes that allow us to have healthy, strong bones.

How is calcium deficiency tested?

Blood tests are not an accurate measure of dietary calcium deficiency as the body will steal calcium from the bones to ensure that calcium levels in the bloodsteam are always met (except in the case of serious illnesses). The best way to tell whether you are meeting your calcium requirements is to undertake a nutrition assessment by an Accredited Practising Dietitian.

Overall, maintaining adequate calcium levels can help your bones to stay strong, flexible and reduce the risks of fractures or breaks. Having a calcium-rich diet from both animal and plant sources will help you to meet the recommended intakes.  If you think you may be at risk of calcium or Vitamin D deficiency, make an appointment with an Accredited Practising Dietitian for personalised dietary advice.