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Calcium gets a lot of attention, and it’s not for nothing: It’s the most bountiful mineral in the human body. As much as 99 percent of the body’s calcium supply goes to supporting—you guessed it—your teeth and bones, according to the National Institutes of Health.
That leaves one percent of calcium intake for other purposes. When your calcium intake is low, your body steals calcium from the bone tissue.
“Calcium uses your bones for storage,” says Emily Stoker, RDN, LD, and owner of Inspire Wellness & Nutrition in Cleveland, OH. “But so many essential functions need calcium that if you’re not consuming enough calcium, your body will just take and take from your bones to maintain proper levels in the bloodstream.”
Those essential functions include blood vessel dilation (vasodilation), muscle function, nerve impulses, secretion of hormones, blood clotting, and communication between cells.
When calcium leaches from the bones, it can cause serious damage to your bone mineral density, which increases your risk of fractures and osteoporosis. Consuming enough calcium not only provides your bones enough of the mineral and, importantly, it also prevents your bones from losing calcium.
Many Americans don’t get enough calcium, especially women ages 51-70 and men and women older than 70. The Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) recommends 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily (or 1,200 milligrams for adults over 70). Because postmenopausal women experience more fractures than other demographic groups each year, the FNB recommends more calcium for women. “Calcium is absorbed in the small intestine,” says Stoker, “and affected by vitamin D3.” Because of this relationship, getting enough vitamin D can help with calcium absorption and prevent calcium deficiency.
Your body can handle little blips and dips in calcium intake. A day or two with low calcium won’t likely cause problems, thanks to your blood’s careful regulation of the available calcium. You’re unlikely to experience any noticeable symptoms at that stage.
But if low calcium intake continues, you may develop hypocalcemia—when there is insufficient levels of calcium in the blood plasma. If you start experiencing symptoms of calcium deficiency, you’ve already been deficient for quite a while. If you notice any of the following symptoms of calcium deficiency, or suspect you might be deficient based on your diet, talk to a doctor.
About 43 percent of Americans take supplements containing calcium, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, many health experts recommend getting calcium from food sources, such as dairy products, green vegetables, nuts, and fortified breads, cereal, and plant-based milks. Calcium from whole foods has the extra advantage of providing other nutrients that are important for bone health, such as vitamin D, protein, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin K. And some, like vitamin D, help the body absorb calcium, according to the International Osteoporosis Foundation.
In fact, a 2018 study of more than 140,000 adults over the age of 60 found that those who followed the Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes whole, minimally processed foods—had a lower incidence of hip fractures.
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