Lynn Little: Calcium: An important mineral in your diet

October 14, 2009|By LYNN LITTLE

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. Ninety-nine percent of this calcium is in teeth and bones. The other 1 percent is found in blood, extracellular fluids and within cells of all tissues where it regulates key metabolic functions. Calcium is needed for growth and bone density, plus it keeps the heart pumping, muscles moving and nerves communicating.

Low calcium intake over your lifetime may lead to less dense bones or bone loss and increased risk of osteoporosis. The body stores calcium in bones till age 20, reaching peak bone mass by the age of 30.

Milk products are usually the primary source of calcium in our diets. Diets that provide three cups or the equivalent of milk products per day can improve bone mass. Unfortunately many adults do not drink milk. They do not like the taste, or they think it is only for kids. They feel it has too many calories. Or they are lactose intolerant, a condition in which milk gives them gas and makes them feel bloated.


If you are lactose intolerant, try using one of the lactose-digesting products on the market. Lactaid brand milk with extra calcium is also available at grocery stores.

So how can you add calcium to your diet?

  • Use cheese. There are many low-fat and nonfat cheeses available. Eat cheese plain or combine it with other foods. For those who are lactose intolerant, cook with harder, longer-aged cheeses. They have more whey removed, so they are lower in residual lactose.

  • Use yogurt. Choose low-fat or nonfat versions, plain or flavored. Use as a substitute for mayonnaise in salad dressing. Use in place of sour cream in dips, salads, desserts and main dishes. If a thicker product is desired, drain the yogurt by placing it in a coffee filter and strainer over a bowl in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours. Use frozen yogurt for dessert instead of ice cream.

  • Use dry milk. Use dry milk as an additive in cooking and baking. Most recipes will tolerate the addition of 1/4 to 1/2 cup dry milk.

  • Add dry milk to main dishes like meatloaf, cream soups, beef Stroganoff, spaghetti, lasagna, chili, enchiladas, tacos, chicken and broccoli casserole, macaroni and cheese, and most casseroles with a cream-soup base.

  • Add dry milk to baked products such as cookies, brownies, cake mixes, coffee cake, muffins, biscuits, pancakes, French toast, quick breads (corn bread, pumpkin bread or zucchini bread), yeast breads and rolls and their fillings.

  • Add dry milk to other milk-based products such as puddings, Popsicles made with pudding, cheese sauces, milk shakes, milk gravy, cheesecakes, custards, cream soups and creamy salad dressings.

  • Use nondairy sources of calcium. If you have a severe allergy to milk, get your calcium from nondairy sources. Drink juices fortified with calcium and combine this with a daily dose of high-calcium vegetables (dark, leafy greens such as spinach), legumes (such as dried beans, peas, and lentils), tofu and fortified grain products. Use canned fish with bones (such as salmon, sardines and mackerel).

  • Use a dietary supplement. Calcium supplements are available, if needed. Make sure to get a supplement with vitamin D added. Vitamin D plays a key role in the absorption of calcium.


    for more information on calcium and your diet.

    Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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