As a child you heard it over and over again, “If you want to grow up big and strong, you have to drink your milk!” Now that you’re a parent, you’ve probably caught yourself saying the same thing to your own children and rightfully so. Milk is a great source of calcium, the most abundant mineral in the human body. According to the National Institutes of Health, over 99 percent of the calcium stored in the human body creates the structure of our bones and teeth. The remaining 1 percent, although a small amount, plays a vital part in the way your body functions. Calcium is found throughout the body in blood, muscle, and the fluid that lies between cells. It is required for muscle contraction, blood vessel contraction and expansion, the secretion of hormones and enzymes, and central nervous system function. Calcium is constantly maintained in body fluid and tissue to enable these various body processes to function efficiently. Bone development, however, is the main use of calcium and our bodies are in a constant state of remodeling bone. During childhood there is a higher degree of bone formation in our bodies, so the majority of calcium use goes toward building bone. From early to middle adulthood, the process of resorption (breakdown of bone) and deposition (bone formation) are relatively equal. In our older years, the breakdown of bone exceeds bone formation, resulting in bone loss. Osteoporosis is a condition characterized by weak, porous bones that is found among postmenopausal women where bone breakdown exceeds bone formation.
So when it comes to calcium, how much do we need? The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences has established recommendations for the intake of calcium as a Dietary Reference Intake or DRI for healthy people. Daily calcium levels at various age levels are recommended as follows:
Even with guidelines in place, certain individuals are not receiving the proper levels of calcium in their diets. The Continuing Survey of Food Intakes of Individuals states that the following Americans are not meeting their recommended daily intake of calcium:
A good place to start correcting the dietary situation for your family is by following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Guide Pyramid. The Food Guide Pyramid recommends that individuals two years of age and older eat two to three servings of dairy products each day. A serving of dairy is equal to 1 cup (8 fluid ounces) of milk, 8 ounces of yogurt, 1.5 ounces of natural cheese (such as cheddar), or 2.0 ounces of processed cheese (such as American). Although dairy products are the most efficient sources of calcium, there are other foods that contain calcium and also contribute to daily calcium intake. Foods such as Chinese cabbage, kale, and broccoli are alternative sources of the mineral. In addition, many foods such as fruit drinks, juices, cereals, and tofu and now being fortified with calcium to aid in meeting daily intake recommendations. Such items are particularly important to people with lactose intolerance who have difficulty digesting the lactose in milk and thereby tend to avoid it altogether. Individuals who have chosen a vegetarian lifestyle and have eliminated animal products from their diet have also eliminated a vital source of dietary calcium.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends the following tips to help meet daily goals for calcium intake:
Calcium is not just for kids. Although it is an important part of a growing child’s diet, it’s also a vital dietary element through adulthood to help safeguard against impending calcium depletion in our twilight years. So snack on that string cheese and have a cup of yogurt—you’ll be giving your body the resources it needs to build and maintain a strong framework to carry you throughout life!
As with any health-related topics, consult your family physician, health care provider, or dietician for any questions regarding your family’s dietary needs.
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