Ever since you were a kid guzzling a glass of milk with dinner, you’ve probably been aware that calcium is important for developing and maintaining strong, healthy bones. But this multi-functioning nutrient also assists your body in carrying out a number of important functions, from helping your blood vessels move blood through your body to aiding muscle movement.
Still, calcium is under-consumed by all age groups, according to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And while it’s important for all demographics, some populations face a greater risk of calcium deficiency either because they have higher intake requirements or they are less likely to consume calcium-rich foods in ample amounts.
Here’s a refresher on why calcium should not be overlooked, which groups of people need more of it, and how to better incorporate it into your diet.
Why Is Calcium Important?
Calcium’s main claim to fame: It’s stored in your bones and teeth and is what gives them structure and hardness, explains Toby Amidor, M.S., R.D., author of Family Immunity Cookbook. Consuming adequate amounts of calcium throughout life can help prevent osteoporosis, a disease that thins and weakens the bones.
Read More: How To Eat Your Way To Better Heart Health
Beyond bones, though, the heart, muscles, and nerves also require calcium to function properly, says registered dietitian Amber Trejo, M.S., R.D.N., C.P.T.
How Much Calcium Do You Need?
Calcium needs vary based on age and sex. Here’s the average recommended daily value of calcium that different people need, according to the National Institutes of Health:
- Infants from birth to 6 months: 200 milligrams
- Infants 7–12 months: 260 milligrams
- Children 1–3 years: 700 milligrams
- Children 4–8 years: 1,000 milligrams
- Children 9–13 years: 1,300 milligrams
- Teens 14–18 years: 1,300 milligrams
- Adults 19–50 years: 1,000 milligrams
- Adult men 51–70 years: 1,000 milligrams
- Adult women 51–70 years: 1,200 milligrams
- Adults 71 years and older: 1,200 milligrams
- Pregnant and breastfeeding teens: 1,300 milligrams
- Pregnant and breastfeeding adults: 1,000 milligrams
6 Groups Of People Who Need More Calcium
Do you need to pay closer attention to your calcium intake? The following groups of people either have increased calcium needs or are less likely to meet the mark.
1. Pregnant and Lactating Women
Though calcium is an important mineral across all stages of life, it’s especially crucial for pregnant and lactating women. “This is because growing and feeding a fetus is metabolically demanding, and the baby can pull calcium and other nutrients from the mother’s body, leaving her depleted for her own health,” Trejo says.
Pregnant women who don’t get enough calcium can be at risk for dental problems (including cracked teeth) and preeclampsia, a pregnancy issue characterized by high blood pressure.
2. Postmenopausal Women
When women go through menopause, the decrease in estrogen they experience affects their body’s ability to absorb calcium and increases their loss of calcium through urine, explains Blanca Garcia, R.D.N., nutrition specialist for Healthcanal.
With time, this decreased calcium absorption and increased calcium loss can lead to declining bone mass and osteoporosis.
3. Lactose Intolerant Individuals
For those who are lactose intolerant, the common advice to get calcium from dairy can be a point of serious frustration, says Kristian Morey, R.D., L.D.N., of Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. That’s where fortified alternatives come in. “For example, fortified soy milk has the same amount of calcium as regular cow’s milk,” she says.
Lactose intolerant folks also may not realize that they can get calcium from plant-based sources like leafy greens, tofu, or soybeans, as well as canned salmon or sardines, she notes. As a result, they may often fall short.
Akin to those who are lactose intolerant, vegans may need to pay extra attention to their calcium intake since they do not consume common dairy products like milk, cheeses, and yogurt.
In addition to doubling up on plant-based sources of calcium like dark leafy greens, vegans may want to work with a physician or registered dietitian to determine whether supplementation might be a good idea.
Adolescents (ages 9 to 18) have the highest calcium needs, says Morey. “During this time, bone size and mass rapidly increase, with the greatest amount of bone deposition occurring in puberty,” she explains. “It is necessary to maximize bone growth at this time in order to minimize the risk of fractures during adolescence and decrease the risk of osteoporosis later in life.” Of course, kids and teens in this age group often aren’t too concerned with their nutrition, so go ahead and sneak calcium-rich foods into smoothies and milkshakes!
6. People With Cancer
While cancer patients and survivors often focus on overall nutrition (by, say, eating less sugar), they could be missing out on the crucial need for calcium, says dietitian Kim Dalzell, Ph.D., R.D. and the founder of Cancer Nutrition IQ.
You see, cancer cells can influence changes in the skeleton and some cancer treatments block estrogen, driving bone loss and increasing the risk of fractures in women with cancer, says Dalzell, pointing to research on the topic published in Osteoporosis International. Plus, all cancer patients, regardless of sex, may become lactose intolerant or experience malabsorption issues during treatment, Dalzell says.
She recommends that all cancer patients, especially women treated for breast cancer, be evaluated for bone fracture risk and supplement with calcium. Calcium recommendations for adult men and women can vary between 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams, but patients’ needs might be slightly increased during cancer treatment.
How To Consume More Calcium (And Maximize Its Benefits)
Since the body can not produce calcium on its own, the best way to up your intake is to focus on calcium-rich foods, Trejo says.
“You can meet your daily calcium needs from a variety of food sources like dairy products, dark leafy green vegetables, fish, calcium-fortified foods, nuts, and seeds,” she says.
Since vitamin D helps absorb calcium to then be used in bones, matching your calcium intake with adequate vitamin intake is beneficial, Trejo adds. Though you may know vitamin D as the sunshine vitamin, you can also find the nutrient in foods like fatty fish, sardines, mushrooms, and beef or calf liver, as well as in supplements. The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 600 IU for people ages 1 to 70 years, and 800 IU for people over 70 years, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If you still struggle to meet your daily calcium needs with a “food first” approach, then supplementation is recommended, Trejo suggests. Talk to your healthcare provider, who can run a simple blood test that can tell you if you need a supplement.