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Calcium critical for healthy bodies
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The benefits of calcium to the human body are practically immeasurable, and new research shows it can even help prevent tumors and other health problems.
"Most everyone knows the major role of calcium is to help build strong bones," said Rebecca Kelly, a registered dietitian and human nutrition specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service. "Strong bones make movement possible, holding the body upright and supporting muscles."
But not everyone realizes calcium can aid the human body in many different functions, reducing a person's risk for high blood pressure, osteoporosis and some cancers. Calcium, found most abundantly in milk and milk products, also helps regulate muscle contraction, clotting of blood, transmission of nerve impulses, secretion of hormones and enzyme activation.
"The 'Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension' study found that a low-fat diet providing three servings of low-fat dairy products and eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables significantly lowers blood pressure," Kelly said. "This is partly because calcium activates a protein called calmodulin, which relays messages from outside of a cell to inside of a cell and helps the body maintain a healthy blood pressure."
Osteoporosis, a disease commonly associated with elderly women, can actually strike much younger women who do not consume the recommended amount of calcium for their age. Building adequate calcium stores during the childhood and teen years is the best way to prevent osteoporosis. The recommended daily calcium intake for children and teen-agers is 1,300 milligrams.
Children can get this amount from two servings daily of milk, yogurt or cheese; teens need three servings. Calcium-fortified soymilk and orange juice are good sources of nonmilk calcium, as are sardines and salmon with bones, mustard and turnip greens, bok choy, broccoli, sweet potatoes, almonds and sesame seeds.
"Spinach appears to be rich in calcium but contains binders that interfere with the body's calcium absorption," Kelly said, adding that it would take eight cups of spinach to equal the calcium available in one cup of milk.
"Calcium recommendations reflect the body's needs at the different stages of life," Kelly said. "A higher intake is recommended earlier in life to help grow a healthy skeleton, and in later life to minimize bone loss."
Adults ages 19 to 50 years should get 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, and those over 50 need 1,200 milligrams. In terms of servings, that equals a minimum of three servings for teens, two servings for adults, and three for pregnant or breast-feeding women. Pregnant or breast-feeding teens need four servings daily.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children younger than 12 months avoid cow's milk because of its potential to cause intestinal bleeding and iron deficiency. Once a child is old enough to tolerate cow's milk, whole pasteurized milk is the best choice.
"Children younger than 2 need whole milk because it aids in growth and proper development. But when they are older than 2, parents can choose lower-fat and nonfat milk if their children like it and if other good sources of fat are included in the child's diet," Kelly said.
"Children and adults who get plenty of exercise, maintain a healthy weight and eat appropriate foods can safely continue drinking whole milk as long as they choose," she added. "The focus should be on staying active and eating healthy foods."
For many parents, convincing a child to get the recommended daily servings of calcium can become a tiresome battle. But Kelly said many children enjoy drinking milk if chocolate or other flavored syrup is added.
"Many people think flavored milk isn't healthy because it adds sugar. But if a child would otherwise not drink milk at all, it's a very good idea," Kelly said. "Adding flavored milk to a child's diet could also eliminate some other source of sugar, such as regular cola."
But if the calories, sugar and fat in flavored syrups are a real concern, parents can always choose sugar- and fat-free varieties. While eliminating sugar and fat, milk flavored with these syrups still provides needed protein (16 percent of the daily value), potassium (11 percent), riboflavin (24 percent), niacin (10 percent), vitamin A (10 percent), vitamin B12 (13 percent), vitamin D (25 percent) and phosphorus (20 percent).
While the focus tends to be on convincing young girls and women to drink milk, Kelly said boys and men also benefit tremendously from its calcium.
"Milk makes bones strong, which makes movement and exercise possible. And if a person's bones aren't rigid, they will not have the support that muscles need for strength, movement and good posture," she said.
The nutritionist encouraged eating calcium-rich foods as the best way to maintain a healthy level of calcium in the body. However, supplements may be needed by some individuals who have difficulty consuming adequate calcium through diet alone.
Contact: Dr. Rebecca Kelly, (662) 325-3080