Photo: Mother and son shopping

by By Sabra Leomo, Registered Dietitian

In May we celebrate Mother’s Day and also National Women’s Health Week. Women’s health needs differ from person to person in many ways. But one nutrient many of us struggle with is calcium. Although we constantly hear how important calcium is for females, unfortunately many of us lack the recommended amount for a sustainable healthy body.

Why is Calcium Important for Women?

We often associate calcium with bones and that is correct. Ninety-nine percent of the calcium in our body is stored in our bones. The other 1% is found in blood and tissues and helps with nerve function, blood clotting, and helps our muscles contract. Let’s look at some dietary sources of calcium and the recommended calcium intakes for females at different ages and during times like pregnancy and lactation.

Calcium is important at an early age. You can think of calcium as a bank account. Many withdraws and deposits are made which help bones to achieve optimal mass and growth. 90% of bone mass is achieved by the age of 18 in females. 

During pregnancy and lactation calcium is incredibly important. The baby draws from the mother’s nutrient stores and this is especially true with calcium. It is important to take care of your bone health prior and during pregnancy and continuing during lactation. Fortunately, calcium is better absorbed during pregnancy to help with the increased needs for both the mother and baby. The recommended daily allowance during pregnancy and lactation for a female that is 19-50 years old is 1,000 mg/day.

Bone Health. We don’t see as much bone growth during the early 20’s to midlife, but maintaining bone mass is important. For women ages 19-50 the recommended daily allowance is 1,000 mg/day.

As we age we tend to lose bone mass. The decrease in estrogen after menopause also affects how calcium is stored in the bones. Women’s bodies are less able to store calcium from dietary sources due to decreased estrogen. Calcium needs increase for women starting at the age of 51. The recommended daily allowance is 1,200 mg/day.

Food Sources of Calcium

Your body doesn’t produce calcium so it is important to get it from the food that you eat. Dairy is usually the first association we have for food that contains calcium. Fortunately, there are other options if you don’t eat or can’t tolerate dairy.

Some vegetables contain well-absorbed calcium; bok choy, kale, and broccoli are a few options. Cook calcium-containing vegetables in a small amount of water and for a brief time to prevent calcium loss in cooked vegetables.

You can also find calcium in fortified products such as almond and soy milk. These beverages often contain as much or more calcium than milk. Tofu that is processed with calcium sulfate is another source of calcium. Check the ingredients on the tofu package to see if calcium sulfate is listed.

The Vitamin D Connection

We can’t talk about calcium without discussing Vitamin D. For calcium to be absorbed in your body you need vitamin D. Normally food is the preferred method of getting the vitamins and minerals you need. However, there are only a few foods that contain vitamin D such as mushrooms, kale and vitamin D fortified products (dairy products, soy and almond milk, and breakfast cerials). The best ways to obtain vitamin D are through your skin when exposed to sunlight (15-20 minutes per day) and/or through supplements. Vitamin D3 supplementation may be necessary for those who are vitamin D deficient and are unable to obtain it from sunlight or diet. Talk to your healthcare provider to determine whether vitamin D supplementation is needed:

  • Ages 1-70 years--and during pregnancy and lactation--are 600 International Units (IU).  
  • 70 years and older the amount of vitamin D increases to 800 IU
  • Some medical organizations recommend higher levels of vitamin D than the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

Calcium is important at every stage of life to build, maintain, and preserve bone mass. Sources of calcium in our diet go beyond dairy, and incorporating calcium-rich vegetables and fortified foods will help to meet daily calcium needs. Be sure to pair calcium with enough vitamin D for optimal absorption.

Footnotes: 
  1. Harvard Health Publications. Calcium Beyond the Bones. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/calcium-full-story/
  2. National Institutes of Health. Calcium Nutrition Fact Sheet. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
  3. National Institutes of Health. Calcium Nutrition Fact Sheet. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/
  4. Medscape. Calcium Supplementation in Postmenopausal Women to Reduce the Risk of Osteoporotic Fractures https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/737143_2
  5. National Institutes of Health. Calcium Nutrition Fact Sheet. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/