Also, one's ability to compensate for low intake decreases with age, which makes getting adequate calcium even more important in later years when risk of osteoporosis is highest.
Most doctors and nutritionists recommend that people look first to food for their calcium. This is because food sources of calcium tend to supply other nutrients such as phosphorus, vitamin D and lactose that help the body absorb and use calcium. Supplements are best used to help boost calcium intake, but should not be the primary source of it.
Consider the following tips to increase your calcium intake.
Along with boosting calcium intake, make an effort to minimize calcium loss. Protein, caffeine and alcohol all play a role in increasing calcium loss in urine. In one study, it was found that the more protein the subjects ate, the more calcium they lost. Furthermore, animal protein led to an even greater loss of calcium than plant protein. One theory to explain this is that the body dumps calcium into the urine to neutralize the increased acidity that occurs when eating meat. So, for optimal bone health, watch your intake of animal protein, caffeine and alcohol.
If getting the recommended level of calcium through diet alone proves too difficult, many calcium supplements - each of which has advantages and disadvantages - are available on the market. Calcium carbonate and phosphate preparations have the highest concentration of calcium, about 40 percent. Calcium citrate contains 21 percent elemental calcium, but generally is better absorbed than calcium carbonate. Calcium lactate and calcium gluconate contain the least amount of calcium, 13 percent and 9 percent calcium, respectively.
To maximize absorption, some clinicians recommend consuming calcium on an empty stomach; calcium carbonate, however, is generally better tolerated and absorbed when consumed with a meal. Regardless of the form consumed, it's recommended that no more than 500 mg of calcium be taken at any one time. Calcium-fortified orange juice is an excellent alternative to pills. One cup generally contains the same amount of calcium as a cup of milk and is readily absorbed.
When selecting a calcium supplement, look for labels that state the supplement meets USP standards or has passed a 30-minute dissolution test. Avoid supplements made with bone meal or dolomite; they may be contaminated with lead. Also, don't pay more for claims of "natural" or sugar- or starch-free formulas. Calcium is calcium. Even flavored chewable calcium tablets are not significant sources of sugar or calories. Finally, it's best to take calcium supplements with plenty of fluids. If you can tolerate milk, it's an ideal accompaniment because the lactose and vitamin D in the milk help enhance absorption.
Calcium is needed in the body to slow calcium loss from bone as well as for everyday functions including muscle contraction, blood clotting, hormone secretion and nerve impulse transmission.
Fitting more calcium into your diet does not have to be costly or inconvenient. Read food labels to find out how much calcium is contained in your favorite foods. Aim for 100 milligrams or more per serving.
Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.