Food and Nutrition

How Your Body Is Telling You That You Aren’t Eating Enough Calcium

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Photo: Stocksy/Irina Polonina
If you asked the average person why calcium is so important, they would probably say that it’s essential for bone health. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But while calcium is often associated with strong bones, it provides many other benefits to our bodies. In fact, calcium plays a big role in helping blood clots, muscle contractions, and a healthy heart. It’s no surprise that getting an adequate amount of calcium is important, but the question is: How can you tell if you’re getting enough?

Calcium benefits

To better understand how calcium works within our bodies, we tapped Brittany Modell, RD, a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor based in Manhattan. “Calcium is essential to form new bone cells and well as maintain bone health, which becomes increasingly important as we age,” Modell explains. Up to 99 percent of calcium is stored in our bones.

Before we give calcium all the credit in sustaining healthy bones, we should also talk about the role of vitamin D. Think of calcium and vitamin D as a power couple. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (ODS), vitamin D assists the body in its ability to absorb calcium and phosphorus, which helps build and maintain strong bones. “In addition to vitamin D, calcium also works with other nutrients to build bone density, which include vitamin K, magnesium, and potassium,” says Modell.

The recommended calcium intake

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, adults ages 19 to 50 need at least 1,000 mg of calcium of day. And because our bones become weaker over time, the recommended intake for women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70 is at least 1,200 mg of calcium a day.

It is important, however, to remember that when it comes to calcium, more doesn’t always mean better. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), the rate at which your body absorbs calcium drops drastically when you consume more than you require. Research shows that excess calcium can accumulate in body tissues, which may contribute to health issues such as kidney stones, constipation, and heart problems, the Cleveland Clinic explains. That’s why, in addition to daily intake recommendations, calcium also comes with upper limits. According to the ODS, adults between the ages of 19 and 50 shouldn't exceed more than 2,500 milligrams per day, and older adults should cap their consumption at 2,000 milligrams.

Signs of calcium deficiency

The way in which our bodies use calcium is important, but knowing if you’re getting enough isn’t always obvious. Modell breaks it down explaining that “blood levels of calcium are tightly regulated. This means that our bones will release calcium into the blood if our diet does not provide enough calcium.” This can happen without us even knowing, and it’s one way our bodies self-regulate.

However, if you are not getting enough calcium, symptoms may begin to show over time. Modell mentions that “hypocalcemia is a more severe form of calcium deficiency, which often shows various symptoms that you can look out for or speak to your doctor about.”

Here are the most common signs of calcium deficiency:

  • Muscle cramping or weakness
  • Abnormal heart rate
  • Numbness, or tingling in fingers
  • Memory loss or confusion
  • Weak or brittle nails
  • Easy fracturing of the bones

Misconceptions about calcium and vegan sources of calcium

The famous Got Milk? campaign from the 90s encouraged Americans to drink more milk to build stronger bones. But Modell tell us that you can meet your calcium needs by also eating a plant-based diet. “Plant foods, such as leafy greens, may contain less calcium overall but they actually have more bioavailability than dairy,” she says. “Absorption of calcium from vegetables such as collards, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, bok choy, and broccoli can be as high as 60 percent.”

For those curious about increasing calcium through supplements, Modell suggests talking to a doctor for personalized recommendations, as recent research has pointed to a number of risks involved.

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