Got Calcium? Probably Not Enough

Posted January 21, 2008 11:16 a.m. EST

Got milk? Everyone from children to adults needs to get plenty of calcium, through milk or other sources, according to nutritional experts. And, as the popular advertisement says, milk is the primary source for this valuable building block.

“Milk used to be the beverage most kids and many adults alike reached for,” says Tracey Bates, spokesperson and past president for the North Carolina Dietetic Association. “The concern is in what they are choosing instead of milk. Soda, fruit drinks, tea, coffee and sports drinks may win out for consumer choice, but not for nutrition.”

Calcium is key for strong, healthy bones. And most children age 8 and older aren’t getting enough calcium, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Parents are encouraged to make sure children get the calcium and physical activity they need to grow strong bones, especially during the teen years, when bone growth peaks.

The current daily calcium recommendations from the AAP are 500 milligrams for toddlers ages 1 to 3, 800 milligrams for children ages 4 to 8 and 1,300 milligrams for children 9 to 18 years old.

Cow’s milk and dairy products are probably the most well-known sources of calcium. One cup of cow’s milk has 276 milligrams of calcium. In general, experts recommend that everyone consumes at least three servings of low-fat dairy per day. (Additional calcium comes from miscellaneous food sources.)

Teens, especially girls, are at greater risk for developing the bone disease osteoporosis, which increases the risk of fractures from weakened bones.

“Milk is for kids of all ages,” Bates says. “The calcium in dairy products is important not only for building strong bones and teeth, but also for the functioning of our muscles and nerves as well as controlling blood pressure and weight.”

Most milk group choices should be fat-free or low-fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. In general, 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1½ ounces of natural cheese or 2 ounces of processed cheese can be considered a serving from the milk group.

Allowing children to drink chocolate milk is certainly better than no milk at all, experts agree. But parents should still watch the child’s sugar intake from flavored drinks. Low-fat chocolate milk is preferred.

Parents Need to Drink Up, Too

Carolyn Dunn, a professor and nutrition specialist at North Carolina State University, says that most people, from children to adults, are probably lacking in their daily calcium intake. While parents may supervise how many glasses of milk their children drink daily, they need to remember calcium for themselves as well.

“Adults need to check with their doctors and see if they should be taking calcium supplements,” she says. “Women, especially, need to be aware of their calcium intake to help with bone density and strength.”

Dunn is a member of the leadership team for the statewide initiative Eat Smart, Move More, North Carolina . She also is co-author of Color Me Healthy, an award-winning nutrition and physical activity program for children ages 4 and 5.

Experts suggest that those using calcium supplements take 500 to 600 milligrams of calcium carbonate or calcium citrate twice a day with meals. Adults should not take more than 500 milligrams of calcium at any one time, according to Cathie Ostrowski, a Triangle dietitian.

“Adults also need to avoid large amounts of sodium, salt and caffeine because they decrease the absorption of calcium,” she says. “The amount of phosphorus in three 12-ounce sodas is enough to leach calcium from the bones.”

According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), adults under age 50 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, and adults age 50 and over need at least 1,200 milligrams each day.

The NOF also recommends daily doses of vitamin D3, the form of vitamin D that best supports bone health. It is also called cholecalciferol. Vitamin D can also be obtained from fortified milk, egg yolks, saltwater fish and liver.

Vitamin D plays a major role in calcium absorption and bone health. Vitamin D3 is manufactured in the skin following direct exposure to sunlight. However, there are many different factors that affect a person’s ability to make adequate amounts of vitamin D.

Lactose Intolerance

Some people face special challenges when looking for the required calcium sources. Some are lactose-intolerant, allergic to cow’s milk or may choose to exclude dairy products from their diet.

Bates offers the following tips for those with lactose concerns:

  • Start with small amounts of dairy.
  • Eat or drink dairy at meals with other foods, such as cereal with fresh fruit and milk.
  • Try low-fat yogurt or cheese, which has less lactose than milk.
  • Choose lactose-free or lactose-reduced milk or milk products.
  • Add other calcium-rich foods.

Getting enough calcium, usually through milk and other dairy products, is important for the health of all family members. “Everyone needs calcium to help maintain their lifelong health,” Dunn says. “It is essential that both children and adults get enough throughout their life.”