Another week, another health scare. The Health pages of newspapers in the past couple of weeks have been full of the news that taking calcium supplements can almost double the risk of having a heart attack.
What is the Role of Calcium in the Body?
Calcium is the mineral most needed by the body as it is the main constituent of bone and teeth. It is also important to ensure smooth muscle function, including the heart, and for blood clotting and nerve function. It is particularly important in childhood when bones are growing and in old age, when it is more difficult to absorb. We need around one gram a day to maintain healthy bones and function.
Do You Need Calcium Supplements?
The new research advised that calcium supplements should be “taken with caution” and only for medical reasons, such as osteoporosis.
The researchers suggest that supplements cause calcium levels in the blood to soar above the normal range, and it is this flooding effect which might ultimately be harmful.
They conclude that It is far more beneficial to obtain calcium through food as that way the calcium is taken in small amounts throughout the day and absorbed slowly.
What Happens if you don’t have Enough Calcium?
Symptoms of calcium deficiency include muscle cramps and weakness, osteoarthritis, insomnia, nervousness, joint pain, tooth decay and high blood pressure.
A severe lack of calcium results in Osteoporosis, a disease in which the bones lose their substance and density, becoming thinner, more porous and fragile. It is most common in post-menopausal women due to reduced levels of oestrogen which results in accelerated loss of calcium and other minerals from the bones.
How to Ensure You Absorb Enough Calcium from Food
In order to properly absorb calcium from the food we eat our bodies need to have an adequate supply of vitamin D absorbed mainly through the skin from sunshine and also found in oily fish and eggs. Essential fatty acids, found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, may also help absorption.
It is also important to have enough magnesium in the body as calcium and magnesium work together to maintain healthy bones. Magnesium is also important to maintain a healthy heart as well as regulating nerve and muscle function. The best sources of magnesium include cocoa powder, brazil nuts and sunflower seeds.
What Interferes with the Absorption of Calcium?
Some foods can hinder the absorption of calcium. These include foods high in insoluble fibre, like wheat bran, tea and coffee which contain tannin, alcohol, and foods containing oxalates, which include spinach, rhubarb, chard, chocolate and beetroot. It is also thought that a high protein diet may cause bone demineralisation and calcium to be lost through the urine.
Other factors that can impede the absorption of calcium from food include lack of exercise, hormonal imbalances, excess fat in the diet and a lack of hydrochloric acid in the stomach. Stress also causes more calcium to be excreted.
Which Foods are the best Sources of Calcium?
With all that in mind, what foods can you eat to ensure you get enough calcium from your diet? Here is a selection of some foods which are excellent sources of calcium.
- Poppy seeds
- Parmesan cheese
- Cheddar cheese
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sardines (including bones)
- Steamed tofu
- Milk chocolate
- Haricot beans
Most people think that dairy foods have to be the main source of calcium in the diet but as you can see, there are plenty of alternatives including nuts and seeds for those people following a vegan diet. And it takes some of the guilt out of eating milk chocolate if you know that it’s good for your bones!