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The Fit Woman's Guide to Getting Enough Calcium

Calcium: The Amazing Body Booster

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It's not as though calcium is newly on our radar. By now, we're all up to speed on the mineral's impact on bone density. But as doctors look more closely at what other benefits calcium delivers to the body, and especially to a fit woman, they're pretty excited about its impressive roster of achievements. The mineral helps maintain proper muscle function, aids weight loss, and also carries the capacity to prevent serious illnesses, cancer included. (Here are other calcium rich foods you can try.)

But many of us struggle to find ways to actually consume the high recommended dietary allowance of 1,000 mg a day, especially those who don't eat dairy. As a result, half of adult women aren't getting enough.

And taking calcium in supplement form has been linked to possible health issues, such as heart disease, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association. More on that later.

So what's the solution? Incorporate the expert-driven advice here, and you'll work enough calcium into your diet to get stronger, fitter, and fortified.

Photo: Claire Benoist

Quit Cluster Eating

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If your usual MO is to cover your calcium needs at breakfast with a bowl of cereal and milk, some yogurt, and a latte, you're not actually in the clear to check the mineral off your list, says Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., a professor in the department of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University. "Your body can absorb only 500 mg at a time," Wallace says. Instead of consuming it in one big cluster at a single meal, eat three or four 300 to 500 mg servings of calcium throughout the day.

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Think Outside the Milk Carton

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Many greens are high in calcium, which gives you a lot more options in your quest. But at the same time, you'll want to be selective, because your body can absorb the mineral only from certain types of these veggies. Take kale: Though it has less calcium per serving than spinach, your body takes in 49 percent of the nutrient, compared with a measly 5 percent from spinach, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports. Other calcium-rich greens that your body can easily absorb include bok choy and Chinese cabbage.

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Recruit Some Backup Players

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Aim to get 1,000 IU of vitamin D and 25 grams of fiber daily, and you'll help your body take in calcium more efficiently. "Vitamin D acts like a regulator, managing the calcium levels in your blood and distributing it to your bones," Wallace says. "Fiber promotes the growth of healthy gut bacteria, which in turn might help increase calcium absorption." Hit the target amounts from food (vitamin D is found in oily fish like salmon; fiber, in legumes and cruciferous vegetables).

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Remember: Less is More

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Some days it may be impossible to get enough calcium from food (if you're traveling, say), and that's the one time when supplements can help. But go easy: Pills make it easy to overdo it, says Erin Michos, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, and that's what can potentially lead to health problems. "If you're not getting three servings of calcium a day through food, take one 300 mg supplement for every serving you miss," Wallace says. He suggests choosing pills with calcium citrate over calcium carbonate, especially if you have a history of kidney stones.

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