Most people know calcium is an important mineral that is needed for maintaining strong bones-- we've all seen the commercials over the years (Got Milk?) expressing the importance of consuming adequate amounts. A not-so-common fact about calcium though is that we don't store it as well in the body passed a certain age. As we grow older, cell turnover increases and we eventually start breaking down more calcium than we can store (~this happens around age 30). Now this doesn't mean you shouldn't still be striving to get enough calcium in your diet, it just means that we need to start early and make sure that our children have good sources of calcium in their diet (or a supplement if they have an aversion or allergy to lactose/dairy and aren't meeting their needs through fortified food) and that they keep consuming enough in their diets in adulthood as well.
Although it is 100% true that calcium is an important part of bone health, it has a large variety of other functions in the body in order to maintain homeostasis. Interestingly enough, bone health is on the lower end of the totem pole as far as what is most important. Other functions of calcium include:
Triggering of nerve impulses to cells
Needed for muscle contraction/relaxation
Required in order for blood to clot
Involved in cell metabolism
Pretty cool, right? You wouldn't be alive right now without calcium! But guess where your body takes calcium from to ensure all these functions happen? Your bones. Calcium is pulled out of the bones and into the blood where it is involved in performing the above functions. This is why it's so important to make sure you're consuming enough calcium every day, we want to preserve our bone health and make sure our bodies can continue to form new tissue!
So what could happen if we don't get enough calcium?
Rickets: Most commonly occurs in infants and young children. Rickets is a condition that can occur from a calcium deficiency (as well as a vitamin D or phosphorous deficiency) and is characterized by skeletal deformities such as bowed legs, growth issues, soft bones, chronic pain and muscle weakness.
Hypocalcemia: Inadequate calcium in the body.
Osteopenia: Characterized by the body being unable to create new bone tissue as fast as it is broken down
Osteoporosis: A condition where the bones are porous; there is an increased risk of breakage due to fall injuries or stress.
How do I make sure I'm getting enough calcium?
Fret not! Consuming dairy products or fortified foods as part of your diet regularly will help meet your calcium needs daily. Even individuals who are lactose intolerant or suffering from an allergy have the option of consuming milk alternatives that are often fortified with calcium. If you need help making sure you're consuming a healthy, balanced diet that meets all of your needs, a registered dietitian nutritionist can work with you to help you reach your goals.