Does a glass of milk really do a body good? When it comes to the conversation about calcium, absolutely. While your body naturally produces the mineral calcium, it doesn’t produce enough on its own and therefore requires you to intake dietary calcium to make up the difference.

What exactly does calcium do?

Calcium plays an important role in many critical body functions including:

  • Reinforcing structure and density of bones and teeth
  • Helping nerve cells communicate and send signals back to the brain
  • Aiding muscle contraction
  • Supporting the flow of blood through the body’s blood vessels
  • Stimulating release of vital hormones and enzymes

When you are not intaking enough calcium, your body actually starts to pull it out of your bones resulting in loss of bone density, also known as osteoporosis. Overtime, serious calcium deficiency can result in increased risk for bone fractures, convulsions, abnormal heart rhythms, and numbness or tingling in the fingers.

A 2014 analysis  of U.S. Census and National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data found that over 50% of the U.S. adult population over 50 years of age had osteoporosis and low bone mass. Postmenopausal women especially experience greater bone loss and less calcium absorption due to biochemical changes in their bodies, like a reduced production of estrogen, which is believed to help the body more readily absorb calcium.

What does this mean for older adults? Low bone mass increases risk for bone fracture, diminishes overall strength, and increases risk for experiencing a fall. Ultimately, potential for mobility issues, which require aids like wheelchairs, quad canes, or walkers, grows as older adults experience bone loss and crippling injuries like hip fractures.

It’s not just older adults who aren’t getting enough calcium either, but evidence suggests that on average, many kids and younger adults don’t intake the daily recommended amount of calcium.

What are the recommendations for calcium intake?

The Office of Dietary Supplements under the National Institutes of Health shares a helpful breakdown of recommended daily values of calcium in milligrams by age:

  • Children 4 to 8 years of age should intake 1,000mg of calcium a day
  • Children 9 to 18 years of age should intake 1,300mg of calcium a day
  • Adults 19 – 50 (and men 51 to 70 years of age) should intake 1,000mg a day
  • Adult women 51 to 70 years of age should intake 1,200mg a day
  • And all adults over 71 should intake 1,200 mg a day

For special cases like infants to 3 year olds, smaller doses of 200 to 260mg of calcium a day are recommended. And for pregnant and breastfeeding women, 1,000 to 1,300mg of calcium a day is recommended depending on age.

How much calcium are you consuming a day?

Dairy foods, like milk, yogurt, and cheese are a common go-to source for calcium, while additional non-dairy foods like kale, broccoli, collard greens and fish with soft bones, like sardines and salmon, provide appreciable amounts of calcium too.

You may notice in the grocery store how some foods are “fortified” with calcium as well, like orange juice, cereals, breads, even tofu. It’s important to look at nutritional labels when prioritizing your calcium consumption.

Many adults take calcium supplements which are comprised of calcium carbonate or citrate. Their effectiveness can vary depending on how much you consume at a time, your level of stomach acid, and whether you eat food with the supplement. Recent research has indicated possible adverse effects from taking calcium supplements however.

The Journal of the American Heart Association reported in October 2016 that taking calcium in the form of supplements may increase the risk of plaque buildup on artery walls, potentially harming the heart and vascular system. A growing body of research reinforces the association of taking calcium supplements and developing cardiovascular disease, however, further studies are needed to substantiate the exact links of why and how this is happening.

The bottom line is that incorporating more calcium into your diet is an absolute must. And don’t forget your Vitamin D! Vitamin D increase calcium absorption and ensures young people reach peak strength and bone density by the time they are 30. Exercise and resistance training at any age stimulates the body to produce calcium and build up bone density too, so stay active!