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How to Meet Your Calcium Needs

Reviewers: Academy Nutrition Information Services Team

Published: April 29, 2022

Reviewed: March 28, 2024

What is Calcium?

Calcium is perhaps the most well-known and essential nutrient when it comes to bone health, yet it is underconsumed by many people in the United States. Building strong bones is like building a healthy balance in your "calcium bank account." Bones are living tissue and constantly in a state of turnover, making calcium deposits and withdrawals daily.

Bones don't come with a lifetime guarantee. They need continuous maintenance, or they can weaken and break. If your daily intake of calcium is low, your body will take calcium from your bones to keep blood calcium at normal levels. That's why it's important to get enough calcium early in life and as you age. 

Here are a few ways to meet calcium needs and maintain healthy bones:

  • Follow an overall healthy eating plan using MyPlate as a guide. If you have an allergy to milk or follow a vegan diet, choose non-dairy sources of calcium. People with lactose intolerance may be able to tolerate some dairy foods or can choose lactose-free options. 
  • Consume three servings of dairy or calcium-fortified soy alternative, such as low-fat or fat-free milk, soymilk or yogurt, every day.
  • Dairy isn't the only source of calcium, however the amount of calcium absorbed from other foods — such as leafy green vegetables, calcium-fortified tofu, canned sardines and salmon with soft bones — can vary.
  • When selecting 100% fruit juices and ready-to-eat cereals, choose those that are fortified with calcium.
  • Participate in regular physical activity with weight-bearing activities such as running, dancing or weight training to help keep those bones strong.

Focus on Food First

Registered dietitian nutritionists, known as RDs or RDNs, recommend food as the primary source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, including calcium.

When shopping, read the Nutrition Facts Label and select foods that contain 10% or more of the Daily Value for calcium. Foods that are naturally high or fortified with calcium may be labeled as "calcium-rich" or "excellent source of calcium" and will contain 20% or more of the Daily Value. 

Looking for a quick way to increase your calcium intake? Try these easy tips:

  • Drink an 8-ounce glass of low-fat milk or a calcium-fortified beverage, such as soymilk, with your meals. Fat-free and low-fat milk have slightly more calcium compared to whole milk.
  • Make oatmeal with milk or a calcium-fortified beverage instead of water.
  • Eat 1 cup of low-fat or fat-free yogurt or calcium-fortified soy version with fruit for breakfast or a snack.
  • Top a baked potato with steamed broccoli and shredded low-fat or fat-free dairy or soy cheese. For additional calcium, substitute plain Greek yogurt or a fortified soy version for sour cream.
  • Add dark-green vegetables that provide calcium (for example, bok choy, turnip greens or kale) to meals.
  • Enjoy edamame or figs for a snack.
  • Make a breakfast shake by blending a calcium-fortified beverage or milk with fruit and a type of greens, such as kale.
  • Enjoy calcium-fortified tofu as a plant-based protein option. Other plant-based choices that provide protein and calcium include tahini, almond butter and tempeh.
  • Mix non-fat dry milk into soups and casseroles for extra calcium.

How Well is Calcium Absorbed?

Calcium is absorbed best if you eat sources of calcium throughout the day. Getting enough vitamin D will also help with calcium absorption. An RDN can help you choose foods or a combination of foods and a supplement to meet your individual calcium and vitamin D needs. 

Per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, recommended dietary allowances for calcium for both male and female adults between the ages of 19 and 70 years old is 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day. For adults over 70, 1,200 mg is recommended. Children 1 to 18 years old should consume between 700 and 1,300 mg. Pregnant or lactating individuals should consume between 1,000 and 1,200 mg, depending on age. Recommendations for children under 1 year varies. Check with your health care provider for more specific recommendations based on age.

Although it's rare to get too much calcium from foods alone, calcium intake from foods and supplements should not exceed 2,500 mg per day for adults between ages 19 and 50. This amount is reduced to 2,000 mg per day for adults over 51.

More Tips for Bone Health

While choosing calcium-rich foods and participating in weight bearing activities are key to bone health, there are a few other tips to keep in mind:

  • Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol intake.
  • Ask your physician if you need a bone density test based on your risk factors for osteoporosis.
  • If you need a calcium supplement, choose one that also contains vitamin D.

If you’re not sure if you're meeting your nutritional needs, consider seeing an RDN for individual guidance and recommendations.

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