Confused About Calcium?

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Earlier this year, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released new recommendations regarding calcium supplements. They are recommending AGAINST daily supplementation with 400 IU or less of vitamin D3 and 1,000 mg of calcium carbonate for healthy older women, stating that this doesn’t work to prevent bone fractures in post-menopausal women. However, the task force also asserts that the data is insignificant to make recommendations for larger doses of these supplements or for younger women or men. Want to see the whole statement? You can access it here.

The National Osteoporosis Foundation responded by encouraging all individuals to get the recommended amounts of calcium and vitamin D to protect their bone health. They especially urged people not to stop using the supplements that they are currently taking without checking with their health care provider first.

After reading these documents, I really understood why consumers and educators alike are confused about this issue. There is an excellent article on diet and osteoporosis here in our CPE library, and it is very clear that osteoporosis prevention is more about a healthful diet than supplements. The author of that article, Dr. James J. Kenney, PhD, FACN, agrees with the US Preventive Services Task Force, stating “I’ve long believed that calcium supplements and low doses of vitamin D are largely useless, so I have no real problem with that recommendation change.”

One thing that both groups did agree upon is that the best place to get the calcium needed for good bone health is from food. That’s all well and good if you like dairy products, since these are the best food sources of calcium, but not everyone likes milk or can drink it. If you’re not a milk person, there are other food sources of this important mineral. Some may even surprise you...

  • Certain green vegetables contain calcium. One cup of broccoli has about 75 milligrams (mg) of calcium. Other vegetable sources include collards and turnip greens. There are 226 mg of calcium in a cup of cooked collards and 197 mg in a similar amount of cooked turnip greens.
  • Spinach is a green leafy vegetable, so does it have calcium too? Sadly, I'm afraid not. Spinach, rhubarb stalks, and beet greens are examples of foods that are high in a substance called oxalate. Foods with high levels of oxalate reduce your body’s ability to absorb calcium. While spinach, rhubarb, and beet greens can be part of a healthful diet because they provide other vitamins and minerals, they are not good sources of calcium.
  • For the record, an eight-ounce glass of 2% milk has about 297 mg of calcium. So you’d have to eat about four cups of broccoli or a cup and a half of greens in order to get the same amount of calcium that's in a glass of milk.
  • Some other sources of calcium include seeds and nuts. One ounce (about ¼ of a cup) of almonds has 75 milligrams of calcium. The same amount of sesame and sunflower seeds has 37 mg and 33 mg of calcium, respectively.
  • Another surprising source of calcium is figs. Ten dried figs provide 270 mg of calcium. But use some care here, since figs are also loaded with sugars. Those ten figs provide about 477 calories. I checked the Nutrition Facts label on fig cookies and yes, they do contain some calcium. Two Fig Newtons have 6% of the Daily Value of calcium. That’s about 60 mg. That’s not a great source, but it’s better than nothing and every little bit does add up.
  • There are also calcium-fortified non-dairy foods that may be helpful. These include orange juices, breakfast foods, soy milk, cereals, snacks, and breads. Even some bottled water is fortified with calcium.

It is especially important for children to have a healthful diet that includes plenty of calcium. In children, the growth of new bone exceeds bone breakdown. During this stage of life, the osteoblasts create new bone faster than the osteoclasts are breaking it down. Around age 30, most people attain what is called peak bone mass. By age 40, the activity of the osteoblasts starts to slow down to the point where new bone formation falls behind the breakdown of old bone by the osteoclasts. It is primarily the drop in osteoblast cell activity with age that sets the stage for osteoporosis. The result is that bone mass starts to decline in all people with increasing age.

Try smoothies for snacks and desserts. A combination of skim milk and fresh fruit is just like ice cream and offers a great way for kids to stock up on calcium.

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus, The Ohio State University

This post was originally on the Nutrition Education Store's blog. If you haven't checked out this fantastic blog or our amazing store, please do! In the meantime, here are some of our favorite bone and health education materials...


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