We know, don’t we, that calcium is important for bone health, and that resilient bones help reduce our fracture risk. And we really, really want to avoid fractures as we age. Research from Spain published in 2020 found the likelihood of dying within a year of a hip fracture was 27%. I had a wake-up call recently about my own calcium intake when I was researching for my new book on post-menopausal health (now safely delivered to the publisher, yay!)
In the UK, the NRV (Nutrient Reference Value, ie the recommended daily intake) for calcium is 700mg a day. In the US it’s 1200mg for women over 50, and in Australia and New Zealand it’s 1300mg. Nearly twice as much as the UK! Are we being told to take enough? And are we even getting that 700mg? I thought that I was bound to be – I consume plenty of calcium-rich foods – greens daily, kefir/yogurt and beans nearly every day plus tofu and tinned sardines (with bones) weekly. I just assumed I was getting enough, without drilling into how much calcium is in those foods. When I actually looked at dietary calcium levels, I was surprised. This is what I found:
- 100g canned sardines with bones – 351mg calcium
- 100g tofu – 351mg
- 100g Greek yogurt – 110mg
- 100g cruciferous green vegetables – 99mg
- 200ml semi-skimmed milk – 248mg
- 100g beans – 110mg
- 30g almonds – 72mg
- 100g chickpeas – 105mg
- 1 tbs chia seeds – 100mg
- 1 tbs sesame seeds – 88mg
I’ve done the maths, as they say, and if I have yogurt, chia seeds and greens every day, beans most days plus tofu and sardines every week, that averages out at around 450mg a day. Less than two-thirds of the UK NRV and just one-third of that in the US or Australia/New Zealand.
SHOULD I TAKE A SUPPLEMENT?
I’ve looked at calcium supplements and some of them look like enormous lumps of chalk! But there are powders on the market, which might be easier to swallow. There are two main types available: calcium carbonate, which relies on stomach acid for absorption, so needs to be taken with food; and calcium citrate which is more easily absorbed. I know that many of my clients are prescribed supplements by their doctors following an osteopenia or osteoporosis diagnosis.
I’ve hesitated to buy a supplement because one widely-quoted research paper showed there’s only a tiny increase in bone mineral density – 1-2% – among those who take additional calcium, which is unlikely to impact fracture risk. The research team stated, ‘Evidence that calcium supplements prevent fractures is weak and inconsistent.’ Another study linked high calcium intake to increased dementia risk for women who already had cerebrovascular disease (which affects the blood supply to the brain, like stroke), although the researchers emphasised calcium supplements don’t cause dementia, of course. And consuming too much calcium has been linked to gallstone formation.
WHAT I’M DOING INSTEAD
Rather than take a supplement at the moment, I’m focussing on making sure I’m getting as much calcium as I can from plant sources. The great thing about calcium-rich plants is that they also contain nutrients which help absorption, like magnesium, beta carotene, vitamin C, boron, manganese and zinc. As we’ve written about here, Australian research found that women over 55 who ate more vegetables were less likely to be hospitalised with a fracture. The correlation was particularly strong with consumption of brassicas and alliums (onions, leeks, garlic etc). I’m also making sure I get enough vitamin D (from a supplement at this time of year), with vitamin K2 to move calcium to where we want it to be – our bones – rather than leaving it hanging around in our bloodstream where there’s a danger it may calcify blood vessel walls, which we absolutely don’t want.
I’ll continue to monitor my calcium intake. What do you do? Supplement or dietary sources? Let us know in the comments. And see below for calcium-rich recipes from the archive.
JANUARY MENOPAUSE CONFERENCE
I’m speaking about brain health and sleep in midlife and beyond at the Menopause Conference in Solihull on January 22nd 2023. Tickets are £15 and all the details about how to book can be found here. It’s an ‘In Real Life’ event! I’m so looking forward to connecting with attendees and the fabulous speakers who are taking part.
CALCIUM-RICH RECIPES FROM THE ARCHIVE
- Spaghetti with sardines
- Best-ever tofu stir fry
- Lentils in red wine
- Kale shakshuka
- Sardine and watercress pate
- Almond-ginger dipping sauce
- Raspberry almond cake
- Harissa-roasted vegetable salad
Photo Juan Jose Valencia Antia for Unsplash