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You've heard that calcium protects your bones and that your glass of milk is loaded with it, but what do you really know about this essential nutrient? Most people may not realize that calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body. Or that calcium does far more than just strengthen your bones and teeth.

Here's a quick primer on calcium -- including why you need it and where to get it.

Calcium: Good for Bones & Teeth

Calcium is probably best known for strengthening bones and teeth. In fact, most of the calcium in our bodies is stored in the bones and teeth. As bones undergo their regular process of breakdown and remodeling, calcium helps build new bone, especially during growth and development.

Getting enough calcium is important for keeping your bones strong throughout your lifetime, but especially during childhood, while the bones are still growing. It's also essential during the senior years, when bones start to break down faster than they can rebuild. Older bones become more brittle and easily fractured -- a condition called osteoporosis.

Calcium also plays an important role in several other body functions, including:

  • Nerve signal transmission
  • Hormone release
  • Muscle contraction
  • Blood vessel function
  • Blood clotting

There's also some early evidence that calcium might lower blood pressure and help protect against colorectal and prostate cancers. However, these benefits have yet to be confirmed in studies.

How Much Calcium Do You Need?

How much calcium you need depends on your age and gender. The recommended daily dietary allowances for calcium are:

Age Male Female

1-3 years 700 mg 700 mg

4-8 years 1,000 mg 1,000 mg

9-13 years 1,300 mg 1,300 mg

14-18 years 1,300 mg 1,300 mg

19-50 years 1,000 mg 1,000 mg

51-70 years 1,000 mg 1,200 mg

71+ years 1,200 mg 1,200 mg

Getting much more than the recommended amount of calcium from food and supplements increases the risk of side effects, so it’s best to avoid taking too much.

Where Should You Get Calcium?

The ideal way to get calcium, like any nutrient, is from foods. Dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are the best and most obvious sources. One 8-ounce cup of low-fat, plain yogurt contains 415 mg of calcium -- more than a third of the daily recommendation for most age groups. An 8-ounce glass of nonfat milk will provide you nearly 300 mg of calcium. And 1.5 ounces of part-skim mozzarella has 333 mg.

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