If you don’t get enough, your whole body can suffer.
As the white-mustached celebs of the iconic ad campaign taught us, calcium—milk’s rock-star nutrient—is critical to building bones and keeping us healthy.
But if you don’t get enough, your whole body can suffer. That's the case for roughly a quarter of all U.S. adults, according to a dietary guidelines report from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services.
Calcium helps our blood clot, our nerves send messages, our muscles contract, and it also regulates our blood pressure. So if you don’t get the recommended amount—1,000 milligrams a day for women in their twenties and thirties—anything related to these functions can go off-kilter.
What’s worse is that you might not realize there’s a problem until it’s too late. “There are generally no symptoms of dietary calcium deficiency until perhaps bone thinning/osteoporosis occurs and fractures develop in weakened bones,” says Andrea J. Singer, M.D., director of women’s primary care and bone densitometry at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
That said, Singer says eagle-eyed women may notice very subtle signs of sub-par consumption. If you answer yes to any of the Qs below, consider having your M.D. check your levels with a blood test.
Calcium is an electrolyte—a nutrient that carries electrical impulses to the muscles. Having too little of it can make nerve endings (and the muscles they stimulate) trigger-happy, so they’re more likely to spasm, says Singer. Stretching your calves, hamstrings, and quads before bed can help nix cramps before they start, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
A whopping 99 percent of your body’s calcium stores are in your bones and teeth, according to the National Institute of Health. When you’re not getting enough of the mineral in your diet, your body leeches it from these areas, which can up your risk for tooth decay and cavities.
A study in the Journal of Periodontology found people who get less than 500 miligrams of calcium per day (roughly the amount in one cup of yogurt) were almost twice as likely to have periodontitis, a.k.a. gum disease, than those who met the recommended intake.
Nails, like bones and teeth, need enough calcium to grow strong and healthy. If your manicure isn't looking so pretty, it could be a sign that you're not eating enough nutrient-rich foods. “Food is the best source of calcium,” says Singer. Estimate how much you’re eating daily using the National Osteoporosis Foundation’s online calculator.
If you're falling short, load up on dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese are high in calcium), green vegetables like spinach and kale, and fortified foods. Some juices, breakfast foods, soy milk—just be sure to shake the container well since calcium can settle to the bottom—cereals, snacks, and breads all have calcium, too, and can be solid options.