Calcium is important during pregnancy to ensure the proper development of your baby’s teeth and bones. Here’s how much you need, how to get it and when to consider taking a supplement.
What Calcium Does for You
Everyone needs this essential mineral each day. Besides building teeth and bones, calcium also keeps your blood and muscles moving and helps your nerves send messages from your brain to the rest of your body.
Calcium Needs During Pregnancy
Your body can’t make calcium, so you need to get it from food or supplements. While you’re pregnant, try to get at least 1,000 mg of calcium every day. If you’re 18 or younger, then you need at least 1,300 mg of calcium every day.
Foods High in Calcium
Dairy foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are some of the best sources of calcium. Dark, leafy green vegetables also have calcium but in much smaller amounts.
There are plenty of calcium-rich foods for you to choose from.
415 mg: Yogurt, 8 oz, plain low-fat
375 mg: Orange juice, 6 oz of calcium-fortified OJ
325 mg: Sardines, 3 oz canned with bones in oil
307 mg: Cheddar cheese, 1.5 oz
299 mg: Milk, 8 oz nonfat
253 mg: Tofu, 1/2 cup, firm, made with calcium sulfate
181 mg: Salmon, 3 oz canned with bones
100 to 1,000 mg: Cereal, 1 cup of calcium-fortified types
94 mg: Kale, 1 cup, cooked
80 to 500 mg: Soy beverage, 8 oz, calcium-fortified
74 mg: Bok choy, 1 cup, raw
Here are a few examples on how to reach that 1,000 mg goal: Drink 3 cups of milk or calcium-fortified orange juice or choose a cereal that has 1,000 mg of calcium.
What to Know About Calcium Supplements
If you’re allergic to milk, are lactose intolerant, or are vegan, getting enough calcium from food can be difficult. If you don’t get enough from food, your doctor may recommend a calcium supplement.
- Calcium carbonate is less expensive and works best if you take it with food.
- Calcium citrate works just as well with food or on an empty stomach.
Many calcium supplements also contain vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium.
Limit to 500 mg at a time. To make sure your body absorbs the most calcium possible, take only 500 mg of calcium at a time. For example, this might mean taking a 500 mg supplement with breakfast and another with dinner.
Breastfeeding needs more calcium, too. You need to continue calcium supplements while you’re breastfeeding. Research shows you may lose 3% to 5% of your bone mass when you nurse because you lose some of your calcium through breast milk. Luckily, if you are careful to eat foods with calcium and take supplements as advised, you should regain that bone mass within 6 months after you stop breastfeeding.
Too much calcium may cause kidney stones and prevent your body from absorbing zinc and iron, which you need to stay healthy. While you’re pregnant, don’t take more than 2,500 mg of calcium each day (3,000 mg if you’re 18 or younger). If you’re concerned you might be getting too much calcium, talk with your doctor before you make any changes.
Calcium is essential whether or not you’re pregnant, but for moms-to-be, it’s particularly vital. Not only does this all-star mineral build your baby’s bones, it also helps maintain your skeletal health. That’s important, since if you aren’t consuming enough calcium for your growing baby, your body will deplete its own stores — placing you at high risk for bone loss during pregnancy and upping your risk of osteoporosis later in life.
So how do you make sure you’re getting plenty of calcium during pregnancy — besides snacking on cheese and sipping on milk? And how can pregnant women who don’t eat dairy ensure they’re getting enough of the mineral? Read on to discover how much calcium is recommended during pregnancy, the best calcium-rich food sources, plus how to determine if a calcium supplement might be in order to cover your bases (and bones).
Why is calcium important during pregnancy?
Calcium helps strengthen your baby’s rapidly-developing bones and teeth, and boosts muscle, heart and nerve development as well. Plus, it’s still as important as ever for your teeth and bones. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take what your baby needs. That’s especially the case during the third trimester, when bone development peaks at 250 to 350 milligrams transferred from you and your baby every day.
Not getting enough calcium during pregnancy makes you more susceptible to osteoporosis, a condition causing brittle bones. Many women recover lost bone mass after pregnancy and breastfeeding, but it’s still a good idea to stay ahead of the game and bone up on calcium during pregnancy.
How much calcium do pregnant women need?
Pregnant women need about 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day and women 18 and younger need 1,300 milligrams per day. In general, that means you should aim for four servings of calcium-rich foods daily.
Most prenatal vitamins do not contain enough calcium to meet the recommended 1,000 milligrams per day, but dietary sources of calcium add up quickly. For example, scoop up a cup of plain low-fat yogurt with breakfast and sprinkle part-skim mozzarella on whole wheat pasta at dinner, and you’re already more than halfway to your daily dose.
When estimating calcium intake during pregnancy, take note of the calcium that’s already in your prenatal vitamin. Remember, too, that many over-the-counter heartburn-relief tablets contain calcium, so check the label if you’re using these to help tame pregnancy heartburn.
Best calcium-rich foods for pregnant women
Milk is the most well-touted source of calcium, containing about a third of your daily needs in one 8-ounce glass; it’s especially efficient if you select milk that’s calcium-fortified. If you can’t bear the thought of drinking the white stuff straight up, disguise it in smoothies and soups. Or dabble in other dairy sources, like yogurt eaten straight from the container, in smoothies or as a topping for fruit.
Cheese also delivers a strong dose of the mineral (just make sure the variety you favor is pasteurized — luckily, most of the cheese sold in the U.S. is). Munch on a mozzarella stick with crackers, sprinkle Parmesan on your pasta or pour low-fat cheese sauce over steamed vegetables.
For the most calcium bang for your bite (or sip), consider these calcium-rich foods:
- Plain low-fat yogurt: 415 mg per 8 ounces
- Calcium-fortified orange juice: 349 mg per 1 cup
- Part-skim mozzarella: 333 mg per 1 ½ ounces
- Canned sardines with bones: 325 mg per 3 ounces
- Cheddar cheese: 307 mg per 1 ½ ounces
- Skim milk: 299 mg per 8 ounces
- Calcium-fortified soymilk: 299 mg per 8 ounces
- 2 percent milk: 293 mg per 8 ounces
- Low-fat buttermilk: 284 mg per 8 ounces
- Collard greens: 266 mg per 1 cup
- Cottage cheese: 187 mg per 1 cup
Lactose intolerant or choose not to eat dairy? Most dairy-free milk substitutes are fortified with calcium; be sure to check the label. In addition to the non-dairy sources above, you can also bone up on plenty of other high-calcium foods and drinks throughout the day:
- Tofu: 253 mg per ½ cup
- Canned salmon: 181 mg per 3 ounces
- Chia seeds: 179 mg per 1 ounce
- Bok choy: 160 mg per 1 cup
- Turnip greens: 148 mg per 1 cup
- Black-eyed peas: 106 mg per ½ cup
- Kale: 55 mg per 1 cup
- Broccoli: 21 mg per ½ cup
Keep in mind that your body needs vitamin D to process calcium, so fill up on foods that are rich in vitamin D, such as salmon, tuna, eggs and mushrooms. Your body also manufactures D in response to sunlight, so spending a few minutes in the sun every day (don’t forget the SPF!) can help boost your levels. To maximize calcium absorption, check that the sunshine vitamin is in your prenatal, too.
Should you take calcium supplements during pregnancy?
Calcium supplements are generally considered safe for moms-to-be, however, too much calcium from supplements can cause unpleasant side effects like gas or constipation. A calcium-containing prenatal, in combination with sufficient food sources of calcium throughout the day, will usually offer enough of the mineral to support both you and your baby during pregnancy.
If you think your consumption might be low or if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, pay extra attention to plant sources of calcium — such as dark leafy greens, tofu and nuts — and ask your practitioner if you should consider a supplement. Your healthcare provider may also recommend a calcium supplement if you have inadequate intake and are at risk for developing preeclampsia. If you’re also taking supplemental iron, keep in mind that you should not take calcium at the same time, since it can interfere with iron absorption (wait two hours in between each supplement).
The bottom line: A healthy, well-balanced diet and good prenatal vitamin will generally supply all of your calcium needs during pregnancy. But if you think you might be coming up short — particularly if you’re vegan — discuss supplementation with your practitioner.