Calcium is an essential mineral that we all require every day. Our bodies need calcium to build strong, healthy bones and teeth. We also require calcium for our muscles to contract to move, our hearts to beat, and our nerves to send messages from our brains to the rest of our bodies.
How does your body get calcium?
As our bodies can’t make calcium, we need to ensure that we get enough from our food and drinks. If we don’t get enough calcium in our diet, our bodies take calcium from our bones, and this can make them weaker and break. When you are pregnant, your body protects the baby and its development, including stealing calcium from your bones and teeth if you are not getting enough calcium from your diet.
Why do you need calcium when pregnant?
Eating a well-balanced diet with some dairy foods should ensure you get the minimum recommended daily amount of calcium -700mg RNI (Ref 1) - to protect your bones and teeth. Having enough calcium might also reduce the risk of pre-eclampsia and pre-term birth (Ref 2). If you are vegan or can’t eat dairy products, your midwife or health care professional might advise you to take a supplement.
Calcium and breastfeeding
Once you have given birth to your baby, the baby receives all the calcium it needs from your breast milk. This is an important time as the baby’s bones are growing and strengthening. If breastfeeding, you will require more calcium - 1250mg daily (ref 3) - to support this growth.
Calcium and menopause
As oestrogen production decreases during menopause, a woman’s bones become vulnerable to rapid loss. Usually, up to 10% of bone mass is gone within the first five years of menopause. However, lifestyle choices and adequate nutrition can help protect against osteoporosis and other density issues.
Women aged 50 to 70 should consume 1200 milligrams of calcium daily (ref 4), no more than 600 milligrams at a time. It is best to split the recommended dose into two parts: one taken in the morning and another in the evening. This will enable maximum absorption by the gut.
What foods can you eat to get calcium?
The following foods are good sources of calcium (ref 5), although some of these are more bioavailable than others – this means that some foods have calcium, which is absorbed better than others due to other nutrients present in the foods. Vitamin D also helps us to absorb calcium from food.
Dairy products, including milk, cheese and yoghurt
Fortified cereals and other cereal products
Dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale and cabbage
Bread flour - most bread flour in the UK is fortified with calcium by law
Tofu and Fortified soya foods
Bony fish such as sardines, anchovies and tinned salmon
How can you ensure that you are getting enough calcium?
Try adding the following foods (ref 6) to your shopping list or meal plan:
Top tips to add calcium to your diet:
Add low-fat cream cheese mixed with herbs or pesto to chicken
Eat yoghurt with fruit for a calcium-boosting dessert
Have a glass of milk (dairy or non-dairy) after exercising to rehydrate and add calcium to your diet
Add a portion of dark leafy greens to each meal to boost nutrient intake, including calcium and other vitamins and minerals
Snack on a handful of dried fruit and nuts
References 1. British Association for Dietitians Calcium Food Fact Sheet https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/Calcium.pdf 2. Hofmeyr GJ et al. Calcium supplementation during pregnancy for preventing hypertensive disorders and related problems. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 8, 2010. 3. Department of Health. Dietary reference values for food energy and nutrients for the United Kingdom. Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy. Report on Health and Social Subjects 41, 1991. 4. John F. Aloia, Ruban Dhaliwal, Albert Shieh, Mageda Mikhail, Shahidul Islam, James K. Yeh, Calcium and Vitamin D Supplementation in Postmenopausal Women, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 98, Issue 11, 1 November 2013, Pages E1702–E1709 5. British Nutrition Foundation. Dietary calcium and health [Online].
2005. http://nutrition.org.uk/attachments/205_Dietary%20calcium%20and%20health%20summary.pdf 6. Food Standards Agency. McCance and Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods: Summary Edition. 6th Ed. Cambridge. Royal Society of Chemistry, 2002