Did you know, your body contains about 1kg of calcium?1 That’s about the same weight as a litre bottle of water!
Most of this calcium is found in our bones.
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our bodies – but our bodies can’t produce it. We lose calcium naturally every day, Therefore, we have to consume calcium every day in our food and drink.
We all know a glass of milk is one of the best sources of calcium, but if you’re not a fan of dairy, there’s no need to worry. There are many other ways to boost your intake of this important mineral.
Why do we need calcium?
The main functions calcium has in our bodies are:
- Growing and maintaining healthy bones - as a dynamic tissue, bones lose calcium on an ongoing basis through skeleton remodelling. This sounds a little frightening, but it’s just the name for the natural process of bones renewing themselves. Our bones contain around 40% calcium, so it’s not surprising that keeping our calcium levels topped up is vital for bone health2
- Contributes to normal blood clotting – calcium is needed to enable blood to clot. During the coagulation (clotting) process, calcium ions are released which bind to other molecules3
- Helping our muscles function normally – calcium ions play a role in movement by helping proteins to interact with each other in order to stimulate a muscle contraction4
How much calcium do I need?
Calcium needs change slightly throughout life. It’s important to know how much calcium you and your family need at each stage of life, to ensure you’re not at risk of low levels or deficiency.
Babies and young children
Babies up until the age of 1 should get all their nutrition, including calcium, from breast milk or infant formula.
A well-nourished mother should be able to provide all the calcium a newborn baby needs in her breast milk. Alternately, infant formula is enriched with the right amount of calcium for your newborn.
- Babies from age 1 - 3 need 350mg calcium per day.5 Whole milk and full-fat dairy products are good sources of calcium for rapidly growing bones and teeth. Alternatively, unsweetened calcium-fortified soya milk, oat milk or almond milk are good choices. However, do not give rice milk to children under the age of 56
- Children aged 4 - 6 need 450mg calcium per day
Babies and young children
A rapid increase in bone mass during teenage years means that older children’s need for calcium is high.7 As boys are generally larger in size than girls, boys need slightly more calcium in their diets to aid their physical development:8
- Children aged 7 - 10 need 550mg per day
- Girls aged 11 - 14 need 800mg calcium per day
- Boys aged 11 – 14 need 1000mg calcium per day
- Girls aged 15 - 18 need 800mg calcium per day
- Boys aged 15 – 18 need 1000mg calcium per day
When we reach adulthood, teeth and bone growth has stabilised and our calcium requirements drop slightly. However, we still need plenty to maintain the strength of our hard tissues.
- Adults aged 19 – 75+ need 700mg calcium per day. Older adults, especially post-menopausal women, should pay special attention to their calcium intake as low calcium levels can be a contributory factor towards poor bone health9
- Pregnant women – During pregnancy, if the diet does not provide enough calcium, then the body takes it from the mother’s bones. Having said this, the extra calcium the growing foetus needs are largely met by an increased level of absorption, so significantly higher calcium intake during pregnancy is not thought to be needed10
However, low calcium intake during pregnancy can increase the risk of low bone mass , so it’s important to ensure you’re getting your 700mg daily.11
- Breastfeeding women – whilst breastfeeding, women should get an extra 550mg calcium per day to meet the body’s demand for calcium as it produces breast milk for the rapidly growing baby.12
Food sources of calcium
Dairy products are the highest sources of calcium in food, but it can also be found in cereals, beans, nuts, seeds and bread.
Calcium in dairy foods
- A 200ml glass of cow’s or goat’s milk will provide 240mg of calcium. This include lactose-free cow’s milk13
- A pot of low-fat fruit yoghurt (125ml) gives you 175mg of calcium.14 Greek yoghurt has calcium and protein. Be sure to check that it’s true Greek yoghurt and not ‘Greek-style’ yoghurt, which, while still healthy, doesn’t go through the same process of multiple straining and isn’t as nutrient-dense.
- Some cheeses are surprisingly rich in calcium. Just 30g of cheddar or Edam – a matchbox-sized portion – gives you nearly 240mg, but cream cheese and parmesan provide the most calcium of the cheeses with 300mg per 30g.15,16
Calcium in dairy foods
Surprising sources of calcium
Don’t eat dairy? No problem! Don’t listen to those people who say you can only get calcium from milk and other dairy products.
If you follow a vegan diet, it pays to be armed with a little knowledge about where to get important nutrients like calcium. Try these - you’ll be topped up in no time.
- Many vegan milks contain calcium equal to that of a glass of cow’s milk (240mg) however, only if they’ve been enriched or fortified with calcium. Coconut milk, hemp milk, oat milk, rice milk, pea milk and almond milk don’t contain enough calcium naturally to be considered a good calcium source unless they’ve had calcium. Be sure to check the label for the words ‘fortified’ or ‘enriched’.17
- Tofu is a vegetarian or vegan’s dream – not only is a great source of protein, it will give you 200mg of calcium per 120g. Try using it in a stir-fry, scrambled for breakfast, or making tofu tacos.18
- Don’t reach for the empty calories of biscuits at 3pm - grab some dried fruit instead. Figs contain more calcium than any other dried fruit – just two will provide 100mg – while eight dried apricots provide an impressive 50mg.19
- If you don’t eat dairy, you don’t have to miss out on the calcium in yoghurt. 125g of soya yoghurt offers 120mg calcium.20
- Brown and white bread come full of calcium (in the UK, calcium is added to white and brown flour by law).21 There’s normally around 65mg calcium in a slice of shop-bought white bread.
Nuts and seeds
- Don’t be fooled by their miniscule size – just one serving of chia seeds (28g) sprinkled over yoghurt or added to a smoothie, packs a whopping 175mg of calcium.22
- Almonds are bursting with calcium too, the richest source of all nuts. A small handful – about 10 almonds – will provide around 50mg of the mineral.23
- Tahini is a thick paste made from ground sesame seeds and packs lots of calcium – around 63mg per 15g tablespoon.
- Leafy green vegetables– such as broccoli, cabbage and okra. Spinach is great for you, but don’t rely on it for calcium as it’s not as high as other leafy green vegetables.24
- Rhubarb - the retro pudding from your school days – is full of calcium. Your body can only absorb about 25% of the calcium in rhubarb.11 The good news is that it’s so rich in calcium that just one serving (240g) still gives you 87mg.25 A rhubarb crumble, topped with chopped almonds and dairy or soya custard, is the perfect calcium-boosting combination.