When you think about calcium, chances are the image of a milk mustache immediately comes to mind. Perhaps memories of being encouraged (okay, forced) to down milk at mealtimes as a kid still even haunt you. After all, the common health narrative suggests that kiddos need lots of calcium to build strong, resilient bones (which is true!).
However, children aren’t the only demographic who benefit from prioritizing calcium intake. Women—and especially postmenopausal women—would benefit from paying this mineral more mind, too.
Ahead, experts explain why this essential nutrient is of particular importance for women, plus how to incorporate more of it into your daily routine.
The Role Of Calcium
Calcium is a mineral that plays a number of roles in the body. Most notably, it helps us build and maintain strong bones, says Kristian Morey, R.D., L.D.N., a clinical dietitian with Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. The mineral is also essential for muscle contractions (yes, including the heart) and blood flow.
In adults, inadequate calcium intake is linked to osteomalacia or osteoporosis, which are both conditions marked by the softening of the bones. Unfortunately, these are conditions that impact nearly 10 million people, 80 percent of which are women.
Why Is Calcium Especially Important For Women?
To be clear: Calcium is an essential nutrient for people all across the gender spectrum. However, it is especially important for people assigned female at birth.
Why? In short, women naturally have lower bone density than men. Due to structural differences, women as a group have smaller, thinner bones, according to a study about the gender disparities in osteoporosis published in the Journal of Clinical Medical Research.
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Women also go through hormonal fluctuations throughout their menstrual cycle—as well as during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause—which impact bone’s ability to hold onto calcium. The culprit here: declines in the hormone estrogen. “When estrogen levels fall, our ability to retain calcium sources also falls,” explains registered dietician Maggie Michalczyk R.D.N, founder of Once Upon A Pumpkin.
How Much Calcium Do Women Need Daily?
The recommended calcium intake for women between the ages of 19 and 50 is 1,000 milligrams per day, according to the National Institutes of Health. For post-menopausal women, the recommended amount jumps an additional 200 milligrams per day to 1,200 total.
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The reason for this uptick? “Those lower estrogen levels are associated with decreased calcium absorption and increased calcium losses through the urine and from the bones,” Morey explains. In fact, data shows that, on average, women lose two percent of their bone mineral density per year after menopause, putting them at higher risk for osteoporosis or osteomalacia. The higher recommended daily intake is intended to compensate for this lower calcium absorption rate and bone density hit, Morey says.
5 Easy Ways To Increase Your Calcium Intake
No matter your age or gender, these habits make it easier to get your calcium needs met.
1. Get Your Calcium Levels Checked
If you’re reading this and think you might not be getting enough calcium, get your levels checked by a doctor before committing to upping your calcium intake willy-nilly, suggests Morey. Depending on your age, your doctor may also suggest a bone density test, which is a special type of x-ray that can measure bone mineral content.
(If you don’t have access to a healthcare provider, or simply want to get a sense of your levels NOW, use the International Osteoporosis Foundation calcium calculator).
2. Incorporate Milk into your diet
The reason you were encouraged to guzzle milk as a kid: Just one glass of nonfat milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium.
That’s why Morey emphasizes incorporating milk (and other dairy, which is also rich in calcium) into your diet. A little can go a long way, whether it’s added to cereals, smoothies, or soups. If you can, opt for organic cow’s milk; time and time again, research has shown that organic is more nutrient-dense than conventional.
If you can’t tolerate milk, there are a number of calcium-fortified milk alternatives on the market, Morey says. Just one cup of a popular almond milk alternative, Almond Breeze, for example, contains 450 milligrams of calcium per serving.
3. Get Acqainted with Non-Dairy Sources, Too
If you’re lactose-intolerant or simply not a fan of dairy, here’s some good news: “There are plenty of ways to get calcium into your diet, other than dairy sources,” says Michalczyk. “Beans, lentils, canned salmon, and almonds are just a few examples of non-dairy sources of calcium.”
To understand just how nutrient-dense these options are, consider the fact that one cup of beans contains nearly 150 milligrams of calcium, while three ounces of salmon offers about 180. Pretty good!
Another benefit of these aforementioned calcium sources is that they are also rich in protein. This is especially noteworthy for women worried about bone density, given that one 2019 study published in Nutrition Today observed a link between high-protein diets and sustained bone density.
Additionally, many leafy greens are also full of calcium. Collard greens, bok choy, swiss chard, kale, and spinach, for example, all contain 150 to 250 milligrams of calcium per (cooked) cup!
Your move: Add a side of sauteed greens to your main meal, throw a handful (or two) of spinach into your morning smoothie, or bake the leaves into healthy chips.
4. Spread Your Intake Out Throughout The Day
Fun fact: “Doses less than 500 milligrams of calcium are better absorbed than doses larger than that,” according to Morey. So while you might be inclined to cram all your calcium into one meal, she recommends spreading calcium-rich foods throughout the day.
“Eating good sources of calcium several times throughout the day will improve calcium absorption, compared to eating it all at once,” she says. The same goes for any calcium supplements in your routine.
5. Don’t Skimp On Vitamin D
“Calcium absorption cannot occur without the presence of vitamin D,” notes Michalczyk. Vitamin D helps the body absorb the calcium you consume by ushering it through transcellular pathways, much like a taxi ushers tourists place to place, according to research published in the journal Molecular Cellular Endocrinology.
This means that in order to actually reap the benefits of the calcium you’re eating, you need to get enough vitamin D. Adults should aim to get at least 600 IU per day, according to the National Institute of Health. (Some suggest that recommendation should be even higher.)
You can get vitamin D from the sunlight—but foods such as egg yolks, saltwater fish, liver, and fortified foods are also important to incorporate, according to Michalczyk. If you live in a four-season climate and the aforementioned foods don’t make a regular appearance in your diet, she recommends talking to your doctor about a vitamin D supplement.