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Everything you need to know about calcium

Here’s a primer on how calcium keeps you healthy, how to know if you’re getting enough and when it’s time to take a supplement.

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calcium[1] Health benefits of calcium Chatelaine

Image, Roberto Caruso.

What it does

Anyone who grew up in the era of the once ubiquitous ‘Got Milk?’ ads knows that calcium is important for maintaining strong bones and teeth and can help prevent osteoporosis. It also plays a role in helping our heart, muscles and nerves function.

Are you getting enough?

The amount of calcium your body needs varies with age. Adults generally need about 1000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day (adults over 50 need slightly more). That number may sound daunting, but most people can reach it easily by consuming calcium-rich foods and beverages.

“The highest sources of calcium do come from dairy products, so if you have something like one cup of skim milk, you’ve taken in 300 mg of calcium,” says Andrea D’Ambrosio, a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada who runs a private practice in Kitchener, Ont.

Other rich sources include yogurt and cottage cheese. For those who don’t eat dairy, there are plenty of alternatives, from calcium-fortified soy or almond milk to tinned salmon (with bones), cooked spinach, almonds or tofu. “These non-dairy sources really add up,” D’Ambrosio said. “If you’re making a conscious effort to get enough calcium, you can can certainly do it.”


Related: Everything you need to know about vitamin C


When to supplement

D’Ambrosio suggests having a conversation with your doctor if you’re unsure of whether your calcium intake is adequate. That’s especially true for adults at risk of osteoporosis or bone fractures who may benefit from a supplement.

When to exercise caution

There is such a thing as too much calcium. Health Canada has set daily intake limits for adults between the ages of 19 and 50 at 2,500 mg per day; that’s partly due to the fact that excess calcium can build up in the blood, forming artery-clogging calcifications, says D’Ambrosio.

A recent study conducted by the John’s Hopkins School of Medicine published in the Journal of the American Heart Association concluded that taking calcium in the form of supplements could damage the heart. However, it also found that calcium absorbed in the body from food had a protective effect on the heart. “It doesn’t prove that calcium supplements are dangerous but it raises cautions for those taking supplements — and the amount taken throughout the day,” D’Ambrosio said.

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