Got calcium Many do, but not nearly enough

Advertisers and health professionals alike have been milking the calcium issue for all it's worth lately. Splashed across magazine pages, sexy models sip it, professional athletes chug it. But just why should it matter if you've "got milk"?

Because each frothy gulp will strengthen your bones, help stave off osteoporosis and enable all of your systems to run more efficiently.

Calcium, quite simply, will do your body good.

Calcium is a crucial mineral that plays an integral role in the maintenance of bone structure, said Susan Streiff of Streiff Chiropractic in Gurnee, Ill. Calcium is also a fuel source for the metabolism, or working mechanics, of all the cells in the body, she said. These processes include muscle contraction and blood clotting.

Abundant in dairy products such as milk, cheese, cottage cheese and yogurt, calcium is also found in leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, mustard greens and broccoli. Other sources of calcium include tofu, or sardines and salmon, with the soft bones intact.

But no matter how abundant or how nutritious, calcium is lacking in the diets of many men, women and children, Streiff contends.

"The typical American diet does not get enough calcium. We are eating a lot of fast foods, a lot of carbonated beverages. Diets are very heavily tipped toward simple carbohydrates or are high in meats, without fruits or vegetables. We really have to look at the whole diet."

Calcium is most important in the earlier stages of life, specifically the first three decades, when new bone is forming and hardening. A low intake of calcium during this time may increase one's future susceptibility to a number of health problems.

"Osteoporosis is a decrease in the density of bones," Streiff said. "It includes the risk of fractures as we get older, so that a hug from a person or a fall can break a rib or a hip."

Women, in particular, need to be aware of their increased calcium requirements, she said. Once a woman reaches the approximate age of 45, she will generally begin to lose bone mass.

"At that age, you start to see a decline of about 35 percent to 40 percent in cortical bone mass — that's in the long bones of the arms and legs," Streiff said. Loss also occurs in the trabecular bone, which includes the vertebrae, pelvis and ends of the ribs. A decrease in bone mass in these areas will increase one's susceptibility to spinal compression factors, which lead to the "hunchback" look, Streiff said.

Weight-bearing exercise, such as running, walking, climbing stairs or weightlifting, is an excellent, non-dietary way to bolster bone strength.

Streiff encourages her patients to aim for at least 50 percent of their calcium from dairy-rich foods. The rest, she said, can be adequately obtained via mineral supplements. Specific supplements may be marketed for consumers with unique medical conditions.

For instance, Streiff said calcium citrate tablets may be helpful for people with gastrointestinal troubles, while calcium carbonate tablets are cheaper and appropriate for a wider range of customers.

Healthy, active people should try to amass approximately 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. The desirable amount increases as health conditions vary.

"Most research shows there is no impact if you go above 2,000 milligrams," Streiff said.

Some people experience symptoms ranging from bloating, diarrhea and cramps soon after ingesting dairy products. This may be due to a condition called lactose intolerance, Streiff said. (Lactose is a milk sugar.)

People who are lactose-intolerant may face the risk of ingesting too little calcium if they fail to incorporate dairy-free, calcium-rich foods or supplements into their diets. A product called Lactaid, when taken with dairy products, can ease symptoms. Lactaid is comprised of lactase, an enzyme that digests lactose, thereby reducing the bloating and gaseous effects.

Some foods, such as orange juice, cereal or even white bread, are fortified with calcium before they hit the shelves.

"The reason they put calcium into orange juice is because vitamin C does help with the absorption of calcium," Streiff said. "It doesn't do you any good to take a calcium tablet if you can't absorb the mineral."

Some factors that could impair the body's ability to soak up calcium include high-protein diets, caffeine and alcohol.

"High-protein diets do increase the amount of calcium your body excretes," she said. "In other words, it takes it out of the bone."