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Calcium

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Calcium is essential for building strong bones and teeth. As our bodies cannot make calcium, we must get it from the foods we eat and drink.

What is calcium?

This important mineral is the main component of bones and teeth. It is essential for growth in children, and helps to ensure efficient muscle contraction and blood clotting. It is also thought to help lower blood pressure.

Our bodies cannot make calcium, so we must get it from the foods we eat and drink. There are only a few foods that contain substantial amounts of calcium, so it is important to ensure we have an adequate daily intake.

Why is it important?

Calcium is vital for the normal growth and strengthening of bones. When a baby is born, for example, its bones are soft and pliable because they consist largely of cartilage. To convert this into strong, solid bone, calcium must be deposited into it, along with other minerals. It is essential that children get enough calcium daily to ensure their bones grow bigger and stronger.

As bone is alive and constantly changing, we need an adequate amount of calcium throughout our lives. Our bones grow and strengthen from infancy through to early adulthood, before starting to decline with the ageing process. From their mid-thirties, both men and women will gradually lose strength in their bones and suffer bone loss. Therefore the only opportunities to build strong bones for later life are during childhood and adolescence.

Bone loss also accelerates rapidly at the time of the menopause in women and puts them at risk of osteoporosis. Sufferers endure thinning, weakening bones that are prone to fracture. Osteoporosis is a major public health problem – an estimated three million people in the UK suffer from the condition. Half of women and one in five men will suffer a fracture after the age of 50 (source: National Osteoporosis Society).

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How much do we need?

The Government’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey has identified calcium as generally lacking in the British diet, particularly among young children and women.

Daily calcium requirements:

Age RNI*
0-12 months (non breast-fed infants only) 525mg
1-3 years 350mg
4-6 years 450mg
7-10 years 550mg
11-18 years 1,000/800mg
19+ years 700mg
Pregnant women 700mg
Breast-feeding women 700+550mg

* RNI - Reference Nutrient Intake. Taken from the Government's Committee on the Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA), Report 41.

An average adult should aim to take in 700mg calcium each day. However, the amount of calcium required by our bodies is dependent on our life stage. Babies, children and adolescents require large amounts for growth and development, while pregnant and breast-feeding mothers must have an adequate intake to ensure their own calcium levels are not compromised.

Post-menopausal women, who are particularly at risk from osteoporosis, may need to boost calcium intake to approximately 1,200mg per day. A calcium supplement can help.

Other nutritional and lifestyle factors are important for bone health. Vitamin D plays a crucial role in bone metabolism and calcium absorption. Most of our vitamin D comes from normal daily exposure to sunlight. Dietary sources include oily fish, eggs and fortified foods, such as margarine.

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Sources of calcium

Milk and dairy products are major sources of calcium. Milk is one of the best providers of calcium in the diet – semi-skimmed and skimmed milk contain similar amounts of calcium to whole milk.

A 200ml glass of milk provides a six-year-old child with 55 per cent of the calcium he or she needs every day. Children can have semi-skimmed milk from the age of two and skimmed from the age of five. Calcium is essential for building strong bones and teeth. As our bodies cannot make calcium, we must get it from the foods we eat and drink Waitrose nutrition advice are eating a balanced diet. Cheeses and yogurts are also good sources of calcium and The Dairy Council recommends three dairy products a day to meet the daily requirement. This can be achieved by consuming three portions of milk, yogurt or cheese per day. A portion could be an average-sized glass (200ml) of semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, a small pot (150g) of low-fat yogurt and a match-box sized (30g) piece of cheese.

Dairy foods are a rich source of calcium in the diet, but there are other foods that also contain calcium. When we eat the soft bones of fish, as with sardines, pilchards and tinned salmon, they supply us with valuable calcium.

Other useful sources include soya bean products, such as tofu, as well as sesame seeds, nuts, white bread, dried fruit, pulses and green leafy vegetables. Okra and curly kale are especially good vegetable sources of calcium.

Some products are fortified with extra calcium, such as soya milk alternatives, bottled water, breakfast cereals and orange juice.

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Calcium supplements

You should be able to get all the calcium you need by eating a varied and balanced diet. But, if you decide to take calcium in supplements, you should be careful not to take too much. You should take no more than 1,500mg per day, as high doses of calcium can lead to stomach pain and diarrhoea (source: Food Standards Agency).

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Dairy-free alternatives

If you are following a dairy-free diet and are concerned that you are not getting enough calcium, you can stop worrying. By making sure you have a well-balanced, varied diet, the body’s requirements for calcium can be met without eating dairy products.

Many milk substitutes are calcium enriched, for example soya or rice non-dairy alternatives to milk.

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Vegetarian and vegan diets

A healthy balanced vegetarian diet, incorporating milk and dairy foods, should provide sufficient calcium.

A vegan diet that excludes all animal produce, including milk and dairy foods, needs more attention to ensure adequate amounts of calcium are included. Soya bean products, bread, nuts, dried fruit, sesame seeds, pulses, green leafy vegetables and foods fortified with calcium should be eaten in plentiful amounts to provide the calcium the body needs.

Source of calcium:

Food Calcium
mg/100g
Semi-skimmed milk 118
Low fat yoghurt, plain 190
Cheddar cheese 740
Sardines, canned in tomato sauce 430
Pilchards, canned in tomato sauce 250
Sesame seeds 670
Almonds 240
Tofu, soybean curd 510
White bread 110
Dried apricots 92
Dried figs 250
Okra, raw 160
Curly kale, boiled 150
Kidney beans, canned 71

Give your bones a boost

  • Add low fat yogurt to breakfast cereal or fruit.
  • Add grated cheese to jacket potatoes and pasta dishes.
  • Make smoothies and milk shakes at home.
  • Add dried fruit and nuts to ice cream, breakfast cereals and desserts.
  • Include weight-bearing exercise in your daily routine, such as walking, running, skipping, aerobics, tennis, football and dancing, which will strengthen your bones.
  • Avoid smoking or excessive alcohol intake to minimise the risks from osteoporosis.
  • The minerals magnesium and zinc are also important for maintaining bone health.
  • Magnesium is found in fish, nuts, whole grains, seeds and pulses. Good dietary sources of zinc include meat, whole grains and beans.

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For more information

Nutrition Advice Service
Waitrose Limited
Bracknell
Berkshire
RG12 8YA
Tel: 0800 188884
Email: customersupport@waitrose.co.uk

The Dairy Council
Henrietta House
17/18 Henrietta Street
London
WC2E 8QH
Tel: 020 7395 4030
www.milk.co.uk (this link opens a new window)

National Osteoporosis Society
Camerton
Bath
BA2 0PJ
Tel: 0845 1303076 (general enquiries)
Tel: 0845 4500230 (helpline for
medical enquiries, Mon-Fri 10am-3pm)
www.nos.org.uk (this link opens a new window)

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