Calcium Really Counts
Did you know that women absorb calcium better during pregnancy than when not pregnant? Even outside of pregnancy, calcium is one of the body’s most important and abundant minerals, forming 2% of a person’s body weight. Although mostly associated with promoting healthy bones, calcium is used by almost every cell in the body and is essential for regulating muscle contractions, nerve impulse signalling, hormonal release, heartbeat, and blood coagulation, to name just a few. Pregnant women have increased calcium needs in order to accommodate Baby’s developing skeletal and dental structure. Occasionally, some women develop temporary osteoporosis or bone loss during pregnancy – teenage mothers in particular may need to be monitored for this.
Don’t forget about vitamin D! Without it, the body can’t absorb or utilise calcium properly. Dietary sources are limited – tuna, salmon, and egg yolks – and the best approach is to spend 15–30 minutes soaking up some sun two or three times a week, to trigger the body’s internal vitamin D production. There are also seaweed and algae extracts that assist the body with the manufacture of this very important vitamin.
Busting the milk myth
It would seem that there is logic behind the belief that cow’s milk is important for women in pregnancy and while nursing a baby because it contains calcium, which is a vital nutrient at these times.
The untruth in the milk myth lies in the milk itself: although dairy products are high in calcium, they are not the best sources and, if eaten in excess, can leach calcium from the bones instead. In fact, dairy’s negative effects may outweigh its positive elements, as its high cholesterol and fat content increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, and it is linked to breast, prostate, and ovarian cancer, diabetes, excessive mucus production, and skin conditions – especially in infants.
Healthier dietary sources of calcium than dairy include leafy green vegetables (broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage), tofu, some forms of seaweed, sesame seeds, almonds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, salmon and sardines, carrots and green peas. If you opt for dairy products, stick to good quality, plain yoghurt, as it is easier to digest than milk and contains a form of calcium which is easier to absorb.
Ideally, all nutrients should be provided by a healthy and balanced diet; however, with the increased need for calcium and other key minerals during pregnancy and the challenge of getting the recommended daily intake, it is often necessary for supplementation. Calcium supplements can be very beneficial during pregnancy, and research has shown that they can decrease the risk of pre-term delivery, hypertension, and pre-eclampsia.
Take into account though that in tablets or capsules which have high doses of both iron and calcium, neither nutrient is absorbed optimally. Pregnancy supplements tend to skimp a bit on calcium in favour of iron, so women might need to take an extra calcium supplement along with their pregnancy supplement. In addition, make sure that your supplemental intake of minerals is not excessive by taking more than one at a time.
During breastfeeding, the body’s need for nutrients such as calcium, zinc, selenium, B-vitamins and vitamin C increases even more than during pregnancy, so continue with your calcium supplement after birth. The recommended daily calcium dose is 1,000mg for pregnant or breastfeeding women