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Calcium

Calcium is a mineral that builds strong bones and teeth. It helps the body in lots of other ways too. Calcium keeps the nerves and muscles working. It also plays a role in keeping the heart healthy. 

Why Do I Need Calcium?

Strong bones are made during childhood and the teen years. People gradually lose bone as they get older, starting in their twenties. Teens need to get enough calcium in their diets to build strong bones and fight bone loss later in life.

If you get enough calcium and exercise when you are a kid and continue to do so as a teen, you'll enter your adult years with the strongest bones possible. But many teens don't get the recommended daily amount of calcium.

How Much Calcium Do I Need?

Teen guys and girls need 1,300 mg (milligrams) of calcium each day.

Get it from:

  • Dairy products. Low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese are good sources of calcium.
  • Veggies. You'll also find calcium in broccoli and dark green leafy vegetables (especially collard and turnip greens, kale, and bok choy).
  • Soy foods. Turn to calcium-fortified (or "calcium-set") tofu, soy milk, tempeh, soy yogurt, and cooked soybeans (edamame).
  • Calcium-fortified foods. Look for calcium-fortified orange juice, soy or almond milk, breads, and cereal.
  • Beans. You can get decent amounts of calcium from baked beans, navy beans, white beans, and others.
  • Canned fish. You're in luck if you like sardines and canned salmon with bones.

Working Calcium Into Your Diet

Looking for ways to up your dietary calcium intake? Here are some easy ones:

  • Put some cheddar in your omelet.
  • Pack a yogurt in your lunch.
  • Add white beans to your favorite soups.
  • Add a slice of American, Swiss, or provolone cheese to sandwiches.
  • Create mini-pizzas by topping whole-wheat English muffins or bagels with pizza sauce, low-fat mozzarella or soy cheese, and broccoli.
  • Try whole-grain crackers with low-fat cheese as an afternoon treat.
  • Dig into chili with red beans and cheese.
  • Create parfaits with layers of plain yogurt, fruit, and whole-grain cereal.
  • Add dark, leafy greens to your salads, stir-fries, and sandwiches.
  • Drink milk or a milk alternative instead of sugary drinks.

How Can I Get Calcium if I’m Lactose Intolerant?

People who are lactose intolerant don't have enough of the intestinal enzyme lactase that helps digest the sugar (lactose) in dairy products. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include gas, bloating, cramps, or diarrhea after drinking milk or eating dairy products.

Fortunately, lactose-free milk and other dairy products are available. You can take lactase drops and tablets with dairy to help with digestion.. Hard, aged cheeses (such as Swiss, parmesan, and cheddar) are lower in lactose. Yogurts with active cultures are easier to digest and much less likely to cause problems. If you avoid dairy completely, many milk and dairy alternatives (such as soy, almond, or coconut milk, yogurt, and cheeses) are calcium fortified.

How Can I Get Calcium if I’m a Vegetarian?

It can be a challenge to get enough calcium in a vegetarian diet that does not include dairy. But you can enjoy good sources of calcium such as dark green leafy vegetables; broccoli; chickpeas, and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, cereals, and soy, almond, or coconut milk, yogurt, and cheese.

What Else Do I Need to Know About Building Strong Bones?

Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, so you need to get enough of this nutrient too. Vitamin D is made by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Fatty fish and egg yolks naturally have some too, but most of the vitamin D in our diets comes from vitamin D fortified milk, bread, and cereal.

Exercise is very important to bone health. Weight-bearing exercises — such as jumping, running, and walking — help make bones strong.

It's best to get the calcium you need through a calcium-rich diet. If you don’t think you’re getting enough calcium or vitamin D in your diet, talk to your doctor about supplements.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021