A dietitian's guide to getting enough calcium in your diet

Calcium-rich foods such as yoghurt are important for heart function and muscular activity, as well as maintaining bone ...
Calcium-rich foods such as yoghurt are important for heart function and muscular activity, as well as maintaining bone mass as we age. Photo: William Meppem

With so many diet-related headlines, it's not surprising we sometimes forget about the importance of nutrition basics such as getting enough calcium.

In fact, it may come as a surprise to hear that despite living in a country in which we have access to a large range of nutrient-rich dairy foods, there are plenty of us, especially young women and women over the age of 50, who are not reaching their daily recommended intake of calcium.

EMBARGOED FOR GOOD WEEKEND, JAN 28/17 ISSUE. Neli Perry recipe : Spinach and Sesame Salad Photograph by William Meppem

Neil Perry's spinach and sesame salad is rich in calcium. Photo: William Meppem

Almost a million Australians now have osteoporosis, and estimates show that by 2022 more than 6 million Australians will have osteoporosis or osteopenia, the condition in which bone mineral density is lower than it should be. 

So it's time we took our bone health more seriously. As a starting point, the first thing we can do is check how much calcium we're really having on a daily basis.

The increasing shift to plant-based foods, especially non-dairy milks, is no doubt affecting many people's calcium intake.

The health of our bones is dependent on a number of factors – genetics, the type of exercise we do, how much sunlight we get and our daily calcium intake.

Our peak bone mass is achieved by the age of about 30, and as such adequate dietary calcium to help in the optimal formation of bone when we are young is crucial. 

Maintaining an optimal intake of this mineral, which is also important for heart function and muscular activity, helps to maintain this bone mass as we age.

Jill Dupleix recipe: Green cous cous with avocado tahini.

Try chickpea dishes such as Jill Dupleix's green cous cous with avocado tahini. Photo: William Meppem

It's also important to get adequate vitamin D, as it plays a key role in the absorption of calcium from the digestive tract.

Recommendations for calcium intake vary for different age brackets. When demands are especially high, as is the case throughout adolescence, for women older than 50 and all adults over the age of 70, the recommended calcium intake is up to 1300mg a day.

In food terms this is significant and translates into at least three serves of calcium-rich dairy. 

Recipe - Green Beans Creamy anchovy , chilli& Lemon dressing Photograph by William Meppem Styling by Hannah Meppem
Green beans with creamy anchovy, chilli and lemon dressing and almonds
Neil Perry
William Meppem

Add more almonds to your diet with Neil Perry's green beans with creamy anchovy. Photo: William Meppem

While you can find calcium in some other foods, including leafy greens, nuts and fortified cereals, it is rarely as high as the 200-300mg per serve that is found naturally in dairy foods, and lacks the synergistic effects of the other key nutrients found in dairy including magnesium and phosphorus, which are also important for bone health.

While there are many people who are getting a daily calcium hit from their favourite latte or flat white, the increasing shift to plant-based foods, especially non-dairy milks, is no doubt affecting many people's calcium intake. 

While some of these "milks" are fortified, not all are, and they are rarely consumed in the volumes dairy milk is. In addition, for those who are opting to avoid milk for reasons including intolerance, thyroid disorders, irritable bowel or lactose intolerance, dietary calcium intake is inevitably low, which translates into dire outcomes for bone health over the course of a lifetime.

Glass of milk standing on old wooden table Glass of milk generic

A single glass of milk delivers 300mg of calcium. Photo: iStock

Indeed, supplementation is an option, especially for those whose calcium intake is routinely low, but there are downsides of taking calcium supplements for some people and as such routine supplementation should only be undertaken under consultation from a dietitian or medical professional.

So where does that leave us and our bone health? First of all, if you are a parent it is imperative that you give your child's or teen's bones the best chance for optimal growth and development by ensuring they are consuming calcium-rich dairy at least three times a day via milk drinks, cheese or yoghurt. 

Seek out kids' yoghurts and snacks with the most calcium and if you are a non-dairy family, ensure that any plant milk is fortified with 200-300mg of calcium per serve. Soy milk is the next best option nutritionally when it comes to nutrient profile, and is superior to both rice and nut based "milk".

For adults, aim for 1000-1300mg of calcium every day. Increasing your daily dairy intake via natural whole foods can simply translate into an extra milk coffee a day, opting for canned fish such as salmon with bones in it and upping your intake of leafy greens such as spinach or collard greens. Adding in a dairy-based dessert or one of the growing range of new calcium-fortified foods from the supermarket is a great option, too.

Calcium counter

  • Glass of milk 300mg
  • Glass of high-calcium milk 500mg
  • Tub of yoghurt 350mg
  • Slice of cheese 150mg
  • Small can salmon with bones 200mg
  • Glass of soy milk 300mg
  • Glass of almond milk (fortified) 200mg
  • Glass of almond milk (unfortified) <20mg
  • 10 almonds 30mg
  • ½ cup silverbeet 90mg
  • 1 cup cooked spinach 170mg                                  
  • ½ cup chickpeas 100mg
  • 100g calcium-rich tuna 800mg

Susie Burrell is a nutritionist and dietitian.