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Building strong bones isn’t just about dairy

In the 1990s, we learned that milk was a great source of calcium and that calcium helped grow strong bones. It was hard to avoid a Got Milk? ad either on television or in a magazine, but what’s the story behind calcium. What does calcium do for us anyway?

Calcium is a mineral that can be found in our bones and teeth, but it also helps with muscle contraction, brain function and blood clotting (Marieb and Hoehn, 2016). There are 206 bones in our bodies and they offer support and protection to a number of muscles and organ systems. Adequate calcium creates strong bones and prevents bone breakdown by osteoclasts as well as preventing osteoporosis. Obtaining adequate calcium can also help prevent weak and brittle bones, which can lead to fractures and breaks.

But did you know that calcium can be found in other foods, not just dairy? Or that for better absorption of calcium you need Vitamin D too?

How much calcium should you consume?

The standard recommendation for adults aged 19 to 50 is 1,000 mg. For females over 50, it’s recommended to increase calcium to 1,200 mg (Thompson & Manore, 2015). For males over 71, it’s recommended to increase to 1,200 mg. However, research has shown that an adequate amount can vary between 800 mg and 1,200 mg. One uncommon facthumans only absorb about 30% of calcium from food, which means we aren’t absorbing all calcium being consumed (NIH, 2018).

What factors can contribute to varying consumption needs?

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Pregnancy
  • Individuals with malabsorption disorders

Who is at risk for inadequate consumption?

  • Postmenopausal women
  • Highly active women
  • Individuals with lactose intolerance or a cow’s milk allergy
  • Individuals with a restrictive diet like vegetarianism

What sources can you find calcium in?

Dairy is a great source of calcium and because of the presence of lactose more calcium from dairy is absorbed, however, there are many other sources too (Thompson & Manore, 2015). Leafy green vegetables like cabbage, kale and broccoli contain calcium as well as some legumes. Below is a list of non-dairy calcium sources:

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Butternut squash
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Kale
  • Sweet potato
  • Chick peas
  • Navy beans
  • Pinto beans

But calcium needs a hand…

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that helps improve calcium absorption (NIH, 2018). It can be found in foods like salmon and tuna, but an easy way to obtain Vitamin D is through sunlight. Most individuals can meet their Vitamin D needs through sunlight, however, this can vary based on location and time of the year. Living in New England we know that it’s necessary to bundle up for colder months where we don’t see as much sun, which means we may not be getting as much or enough in November versus June.

The standard recommendation for an adult 19-70 is 600 IU, while adults over 70 may need 800 IU.

Should you use supplements?

Supplementation may not be as helpful as we once thought.

Toxicity is more likely to occur through supplementation and looking at creating a diverse diet may be the best route to take for many populations. Recent research has shown adverse cardiovascular events associated with supplementation (Shin and Kim, 2015). We’d advise you to speak with your doctor about supplementation of calcium and Vitamin D to determine if it’s something you require.

Other vitamins and minerals help keep bones strong like Vitamin K, phosphorus, magnesium and fluoride. All of these can be found by creating a balanced diet that focuses on whole foods.

Having healthy bones isn’t just about keeping them aligned, but also making them strong and capable.



NIH. (2017, March 2). Calcium. Retrieved from NIH: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/#h3

NIH. (2018, March 2). Vitamin D. Retrieved from NIH: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/#h7

Shin, C. S., & Kim, K. M. (2015). THe Risks and Benefits of Calcium Supplementation. Endocrinology and Metabolism, 27-34.

Thompson, J., & Manore, M. (2015). Nutrients involved in bone health. In J. Thompson, & M. Manore, Nutrition: An Applied Approach (pp. 310-345). San Francisco: Pearson.