Published on 12/03/97

Americans Need More Calcium, UGA Expert Says

P>For the first time since the Recommended Dietary Allowances were published in 1941, the requirements for calcium have been increased.

"Osteoporosis has become a major public health concern," said Gail Hanula, an Extension Service nutrition specialist with the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

"Research shows that calcium intake should be increased to keep our bones strong," she said. "The increase amounts to about one more cup of milk per day for the average adult."

The new nutrition guidelines are no longer called RDAs. The term now is Dietary Reference Intakes, or DRIs.

The Institute of Medicine recommends that most Americans consume at least 1,000 mg of calcium per day. The DRIs, by age groups, are: 1-3 years, 500 mg; 4-8 years, 800 mg; 9-18 years, 1,300 mg; 19-50 years, 1,000 mg; and 51-plus years, 1,200 mg.

The numbers are the same for pregnant or breast-feeding women. "That's a major change in the new guidelines," Hanula said.

Research now shows that hormonal changes cause pregnant or breast-feeding women to absorb more calcium from the food they eat. They appear to regain any calcium they lose after they stop breast-feeding.

The National Academy of Sciences panel also set a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for calcium of 2,500 mg/day. "This is the highest intake that is unlikely to pose risks of adverse health effects in most healthy people," Hanula said.

Calcium RDIs were set at levels based on peak retention of body calcium. Calcium-rich bones are less likely to break.

"Osteoporosis causes 1.5 million hip fractures each year in the United States, resulting in health care costs of $13.8 billion," Hanula said.

The Institute of Medicine reports that unless the typical American diet improves, the problem will worsen.

"The average adult consumes only 500 to 700 mg of calcium per day," Hanula said. "Women, in particular, fall short. After age 11, no age group of females achieves even 75 percent of the calcium needed."

To reach the RDI, eat more calcium-rich foods.

"Milk has the advantage of being fortified with Vitamin D, which is needed for calcium absorption," Hanula said.

Milk products, such as yogurt and cheese, are excellent calcium sources. So are sardines, canned salmon with bones, leafy greens, broccoli and calcium-fortified foods.

Some foods, such as spinach, sweet potatoes and beans, contain calcium, but also have oxalic acid, which slows absorption.

"The panel also advised that calcium supplements may be appropriate for those at high risk of health problems because of low calcium intake," Hanula said.

There's no time like the present to start a calcium-rich diet.

"Non-alcoholic egg nog is a good source of calcium during the holidays," Hanula said. "But look for lower-fat brands."

Skim milk and 2 percent milk, she said, have just as much calcium as whole milk.

Start your holiday menu with a milk-based soup. Or perk up vegetable dishes and salads with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

"As the weather gets colder, hot cocoa is good," Hanula said. "Just put some milk in a coffee mug, add chocolate syrup and microwave. That's a warm, wonderful way to boost your calcium intake."

And there's always the Santa favorite: home-baked holiday cookies and a tall glass of milk.

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.