Most of us lack calcium in our diets


June 21, 1994|By Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon | Joe Graedon and Dr. Teresa Graedon,King Features Syndicate

Mom said it was good for you. Doctors tell us to get more of it. But most people don't get close to the recommended intake of calcium.

Teen-age girls are at greatest risk. At a time when they are growing rapidly and should be building the bones that will carry them through adulthood, most are drinking diet sodas instead of milk.

A recent report from the National Institutes of Health revealed that half of American adults don't get adequate calcium. It's likely the shortfall is even greater for adolescents, especially given the new recommendation that they get 1,200 to 1,500 mg of calcium daily.

To take in that much of this crucial mineral, you would need to consume four to five 8-ounce glasses of milk or cartons of yogurt. How many teen-agers do you know who manage that along with their pizza and chips?

It's even harder to reach the goal if you have to rely on vegetables and other nondairy foods. For example, it would take 8 cups of cooked kale or turnip greens, 21 cups of broccoli, or 30 oranges.

Why should we care about calcium? This mineral plays a crucial role in building and maintaining bone strength. But calcium does much more. It is also important for teeth, nerve transmission, muscle contraction and a host of other physiological functions. Researchers have been looking at the use of calcium for helping control blood pressure and perhaps even reducing the risk of colorectal cancer.

Osteoporosis, or weakened bones, is the major concern of health experts, however. This killer currently affects 25 million Americans. When an elderly person falls and breaks a hip, it frequently results in immobilization, and sometimes people die from the complications of being bedridden.

Because calcium has been shown to diminish the likelihood of osteoporosis and because most people do not get adequate amounts, supplementation is often desirable. But how much and what kind of mineral supplement is recommended?

Experts now suggest 1,000 mg calcium daily for most adults and at least 1,200 mg for women past menopause. Researchers have found low levels of lead in natural-source calcium carbonate, derived from oyster shells or bone meal. Synthetic calcium carbonate, found in such antacids as Tums and Rolaids Calcium Rich, offers a cost-effective way of getting this mineral with minimal contamination.

Vitamin D is also an important addition to calcium, as it enhances absorption and facilitates effectiveness in maintaining bone strength. If you get some sunshine on a regular basis, your skin will make the vitamin D you need. Otherwise, 400 units is an appropriate supplement.

Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.

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