Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Calcium! Are you getting enough...?

"Did you know that not getting enough could actually kill you? Well according to the Daily Mail..." The Hub (who sounded mildly interested when I began making my point) harrumphs loudly at this point, makes despairing noises about me reading that particular newspaper again and returns to whatever he was doing on his laptop. I, however, am quite perturbed. It seems that getting my calcium intake correct is more important than I thought. I mean, I know I didn't want my bones to go all crumbly, but die? Really?

Do I really need Calcium?
It turns out that Calcium (number twenty on the periodic table) is not just important for preventing crumbly bones (osteoporosis). It is essential for the following reasons:
  • strong bones and teeth
  • clotting blood
  • sending signals between the brain and nerves
  • muscles - squeezing and relaxing
  • the release of hormones and other chemicals
  • regulating your heartbeat                          (US National Library of Medicine)
And apparently, this isn't just another 'women's thing' - it's something that we all need to watch out for. Well I never! Best pay attention to this one then!

How much?
So let's start at the beginning with this one - hands up who knows how much you should be getting (sorry no prizes for getting it right). Well if you said 700mg a day (UK Food Standards Authority) you wouldn't be wrong, but actually not necessarily right either! (That is the without taking into account the fact that it varies according to age/sex etc.) 

In fact, where you live might make some difference to your answer, because different countries seem to make vastly different recommendations! Sweden recommends 800mg a day, the US 1,000mg and Australia as much as 1,300mg a day! So it seems sensible, to me, take the view of Dr Virginia Warren of Bupa and aim for between 700mg-1,200mg of calcium a day.

Of course that was just for the adults! How about everyone else? Well the SNDRi (I couldn't find a UK reference online, so I used a booklet by this organisation which I think is Scottish, so that means British - for now) recommends the following:

1-3 years                        350mg
4-6 years                        450mg
7-10 years                       550mg
11-18 years                     900mg
adults                             700mg
breastfeeding women     1250mg
post-menopausal women 1000mg                                        (SNDRi - 'milk-free zone')

If you prefer to follow US Government recommendations, you can refer to the NIH

Available as a dietary supplement
Well, although you can get dietary supplements, the best way to get calcium (which it turns out is actually a metal) is, of course, through what you eat and the richest source is... wait for it... dairy!! Apparently about a pint of milk would give you enough for one day (good old pint, eh?). Hmm!! Not much good for dairy free baby and me then, is it? 

Where else?
Well there are other places, but don't be fooled, it's not all that easy! You may need to eat an awful lot of apricots and nuts!

Milk substitutes can provide calcium
Thankfully, these days, with good calcium enriched milk substitutes available, you can usually get around a third of your daily recommended amount, just by having one glass (200ml). However, you need to check each carton, as they are not all necessarily the same - the amount of calcium may vary according to brand. 

If you don't fancy drinking dairy free milk straight, well, there are other ways of adding it to your diet- with a bowl of cereal or porridge in the morning, or perhaps a pancake? You could also squeeze it in by making a dairy free lasagna, or fish pie. Then there's always desserts, such as custard, rice pudding, bread pudding - anything in which you'd usually use milk. A mug of hot chocolate or a cold milk shake (Nesquik Strawberry for me) could also add to your daily intake - although you might want to watch your sugar levels here!

Also, Tropicana make an orange juice that is enriched with calcium - 35% of my daily allowance. So that's almost two-thirds, what about the rest? Well, bread is fortified with calcium, but a slice of white bread  will only provide 64mg. Still got a way to go to get my recommended daily allowance, then. 

The top dairy free source of Calcium is sadly... not chocolate! It is, apparently (if only I could  get myself to like it)  Whitebait - a 3oz. serving could provide me with a whopping 774mg of calcium!! However, I needn't despair, there are other places to look too - here's the list I was given:

Sardines in oil                                                                   75g                      375mg
Sardines in tomato sauce                                                    75g                      323mg
Tinned Salmon (flesh & bones)                                           100g                      300mg
Pilchards in tomato sauce                                                  115g                      288mg
Tinned Salmon (flesh, no bones)                                         100g                       91mg

Boiled Spinach                                                               90g                      144mg
(I'm not sure that Spinach is considered a great source of calcium, because the body doesn't absorb the calcium in spinach very well, this is because spinach also contains oxalate)
Boiled Curly Kale                                                             90g                      135mg
Stir-fried Okra                                                                50g                      110mg
Boiled Spring Greens                                                        90g                        68mg
Raw Watercress                                                              20g                        34mg

Pulses, Beans & Seeds
Steamed Tofu                                                                100g                      275mg
Tahini (sesame paste)                                                       25g                      170mg
Sesame Seeds                                                                 25g                       168mg 
(I believe the best way to get at the calcium in sesame seeds is to grind them)
Baked Beans                                                                  200g                       106mg
Canned Red Kidney Beans                                                  70g                        50mg

Ready Brek (made with water)*                                          40g                       480mg
Porridge (made with whole milk)                                      160g                       205mg
White Bread (medium)                                           1 slice  36g                         64mg
Swiss Style Museli                                                             50g                         55mg
Wholemeal Bread (medium)                                    1 slice  38g                         38mg

Medium Orange (peeled)                                                 160g                        75mg
Dried Figs                                                                       20g                        50mg
Currants                                                                         25g                        23mg
Dried Apricots                                                                 25g                        18mg

Other similar lists, listing some other alternative sources have been produced by The National Osteoporosis Foundation and The Vegan Society, among others. Another list that I've come across in a couple of places, (it might be American - it refers to molasses) may also prove useful, although some of the units of measurement seem to be missing! Another list for the Americans (produced by the US Government) also seems quite useful, but you need to scroll down to find the calcium!

Anything else you need to know?
Well, yes, actually - don't overdo it! It seems that taking too much calcium can give you tummy pains, diarrhea, kidney stones and now heart problems (Daily Mail)!! 

Also, you need to make sure that you are  also getting enough vitamin D to help your body absorb all that calcium, but more on that one another day!! 

Another thing to consider is the big E - exercise! Apparently 'weight bearing' exercise (walking, running etc.) helps to keep your bones strong.

And last of all, watch how much cola you drink - well caffeine actually! Apparently it makes your body excrete all that lovely calcium. Oh dear!! Now for me... that could be a bit of a problem - I do love my coffee... and chocolate...!!

Updates January 2015:

*Please note: Ready Brek used to be listed as a good source of calcium, indeed it is, but it now carries a milk warning - 'not suitable for milk allergy sufferers'!

Thanks to Sarah (@Sugarpuffish, via Twitter), I've just come across this new list suggesting good sources of calcium. I must admit, I really like the star ratings, which makes everything so much easier to understand! However, the reference to the calcium level in 'Wot no dairy?' yogurts is wrong - it's 60mg in 100g! The Hovis 'Best of Both' calculation also seems to be out - I cross-referenced it with this list from the BDA.

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