Life Times Newsletter

September/October 2003
Vol. 5, No.5

Calcium: There’s more than bones about it

Calcium helps protect us from which of the following?

a. Osteoporosis
b. Hypertension
c. Weight gain
d. Cancer
e. Premenstrual Syndrome
f. All of the above

If you connected calcium with strong bones and chose “a,” that’s good. It is important to realize that calcium is a powerhouse nutrient for bones for people of all ages.

However, calcium has other functions all over the body, such as nerve and muscle function, and even maintenance of a regular heart rhythm. In addition, emerging research is showing calcium to be valuable in protecting us from all the other conditions listed previously. So the correct answer to the quiz is “f.” Here is a summary of each benefit.

Osteoporosis. There is no refuting the fact that adequate calcium promotes both bone building and bone maintenance. When calcium intake is too low, it is released from the skeleton. Deficiencies over time lead to weakened bones, as well as debilitating pain and fractures in old age.

USDA statistics show that less than 40 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls, ages 6 to 11, meet their calcium needs on a daily basis. The National Academy of Sciences suggests children, ages 6 to 8, need 800 mg of calcium daily, the amount found in three 8-ounce glasses of milk. Kids of ages 9 to 18 need 1300 mg of calcium, the amount in four 8-ounce glasses of milk.

Moms matter. Studies show children are more likely to choose milk over soda if they see their mom make this choice.

Calcium is not just for children. If available, calcium can be deposited in bone not only during the growing years, but also up to age 25 or so. But the benefits do not stop there. Calcium continues to slow bone loss and reduce fracture rates into a person’s eighties.

Two more factors are needed for strong bones besides calcium. Vitamin D is needed for absorption, and regular weight-bearing exercise is needed to build bone.

Hypertension. One in five Americans suffers from hypertension, or high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease, stroke or kidney failure if uncontrolled. What you eat can help prevent or control hypertension.

The DASH diet, short for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” works as well or better than single drug therapy for high blood pressure. The DASH diet features eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, three servings of low-fat dairy, as well as reduced sodium. Real dairy foods proved twice as effective as calcium supplements in lowering blood pressure.

Obesity. In 1999, nearly 61 percent of U.S. adults were overweight or obese, and 13 percent of children and adolescents were overweight. The incidence of obesity in children, ages 6 to 11, has increased 50 percent in the last 40 years, greatly increasing the likelihood they will be obese adults.

Many of us cut down on dairy foods when dieting in an attempt to reduce fat. But that may be a mistake.

Several studies suggest that including more calcium from dairy products, not less, helps with weight loss. One study from Purdue University, published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, December 2000, showed that those women with the highest intake of calcium from dairy lost the most weight and body fat over a two-year period. In addition, children who consume milk, cheese and yogurt are leaner than those who skimp on dairy products. It seems that three servings of dairy, which provide 1000 mg of calcium, will fill you up -- not out.

Colon cancer. Colorectal cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer deaths in American women. Fatty diets are partly to blame because unabsorbed fatty acids and bile acids irritate the colon and act as carcinogens. Calcium can block abnormal cell growth and bind up the excess bile and fatty acids. People with high calcium intake (1200 mg per day) are less likely to develop colorectal adenomas (precursors to colon cancer); and calcium supplements have reduced the risk of recurrence by 24 percent among those who’ve undergone polyp removal.

Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS). Forget all the supplements you have heard about to relieve PMS. Only calcium has stood up to scrutiny. In a 1998 study, 466 women with documented PMS received 1200 mg of calcium carbonate daily or a placebo. By the third cycle, the women taking calcium showed improvements in negative moods, food cravings, pain and fluid retention. Given all the evidence, it seems clear that it’s worth getting more calcium, especially from food sources.

Cynthia Fauser, MS, RD, LD
Nutrition Specialist

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University of Missouri Extension Editor: Roxanne T. Miller