According to the National Institute of Health’s article entitled “Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium,” healthy seniors should take in at least 1200 mg of dietary calcium daily to maintain their bone health. The upper limit for daily calcium recommendations for healthy seniors ranges from 2000 to 2500 mg, depending on the source. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) MyPyramid food guidance system recommends that seniors get the equivalent of three low-fat or fat free cups from the milk group in their diets each day.
Many food labels list calcium content as a percentage based on 1000 mg of daily calcium. Multiply the percentage by 10 to determine the calcium amount in milligrams. For example, 30% would equal 300 mg. According to the USDA’s 1994-96 Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals data, 55% of men and 78% of women do not get enough daily calcium. Some seniors may not wish to drink milk for various reasons, but they have the option to get the calcium they need through alternative sources.
Foods & Drinks that Naturally That Contain Calcium
Although calcium is found in fluid milk, some seniors may experience unpleasant affects after drinking milk, even if they use lactose-free brands or take Lactaid. Alternatives to fluid milk contain calcium and some do not contain lactose. Two to four tablespoons of powdered milk added to recipes can add about 50 mg of calcium per tablespoon. The following are equivalent to one 8-ounce cup of milk:
- 8 ounces of yogurt
- 1 ½ ounces of natural cheese
- 2 ounces of processed cheese
Other calcium-containing foods include sardines, salmon, almonds, spinach, turnip greens, kale, Chinese cabbage, corn and flour tortillas, bread, and broccoli.
Calcium-fortified Foods and Drinks
Some manufacturers may fortify foods and drinks with calcium that do not naturally contain the mineral. Many seniors are aware of calcium-fortified orange juice. Examples of other products that may be fortified with calcium include:
- Rice milk
- Grape juice
- Soy milk
- Tofu (usually made with calcium sulfate, firmer tofu tends to contain more calcium)
- Nutritional supplements like Ensure
- Bottled water
Vitamin D’s Role in Calcium Absorption
According to the Department of Health and Human Services’s article “Calcium and Vitamin D,” that was last modified May 2008, seniors should get 400 to 800 IU of vitamin D each day. The above article also mentions that people may take in vitamin D through sunlight, supplements, and fortified foods such as:
- Egg yolks
- Saltwater fish
- Some cereals
- Breakfast bars
This fat-soluble vitamin helps the body absorb and maintain calcium levels and does not have to be taken at the same time as the calcium in order to be effective.
The preferred method of getting calcium is through a healthy diet. If a physician recommends a calcium supplement, the body can better absorb calcium if it is split into doses of 600 mg or less. Many people take one calcium supplement in the morning and another in the evening. Taking the supplement with a meal may encourage the body to better absorb the mineral.
Drugs, Foods & Drinks That Decrease Calcium Absorption
Calcium interacts with quite a few medications, and seniors who are taking any medications should check with their physician regarding safe scheduling of medications while maintaining adequate calcium intake. People who are taking a proton pump inhibitor (Prilosec, Prevacid, Nexium, Protonix, Aciphex) and need to take a calcium supplement may be better served by calcium citrate, which does not require an acidic environment for absorption.
The National Osteoporosis Foundation’s 2008 article entitled “What You Should Know About Calcium” mentions several foods and drinks that can interfere with calcium absorption, including:
- Foods high in oxalate, including rhubarb, spinach, and beet greens
- Legumes high in phytate, including navy beans, pintos, and peas – soak the dried beans for several hours and then cook the legumes in fresh water
- Foods containing 100% wheat bran – separate timing of calcium administration and eating 100% wheat bran by at least two hours
- Avoid a diet high in salt, protein, and/or caffeine because these can interfere with calcium absorption. Increase calcium intake per physician advice if a high protein diet is recommended.
- Soft drinks and other drinks with phosphorus – avoid these as the phosphorus may compete with the calcium and often replaces calcium-containing beverages
Seniors Can Have Healthier Bodies by Getting Enough Calcium
Older adults who cannot drink milk need not despair. Many calcium-rich milk alternatives are now available to help seniors get the calcium they need to maintain healthy bones and avoid problems such as osteopenia and osteoporosis. Seniors who are aware of drugs, foods, and drinks that interfere with calcium absorption may wish to make adjustments to optimize calcium levels.
Seniors interested in bone health may also wish to read about a walking exercise program, hip fracture prevention, and bone density testing. Readers are welcome to post comments regarding this article in the comment box below.