The Key Nutrient Every Mom Needs

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Calcium: I had read a lot about the importance of this nutrient when I was younger, but to be honest, I never really worried about not getting enough. I was young, I was strong, and I ate pretty well. That was before my mom was diagnosed with osteoporosis at 68—and my risk of this debilitating bone disease went up (it runs in families). Now, needless to say, I do worry about getting enough of this key nutrient and being able to play with my grandkids someday…why I thought it important to remind other moms about it. Here, the key facts every woman needs to know:

Safeguarding your bones is like putting money into a 401(k); that’s what a doctor I know once told me. According to this doctor, an orthopedic surgeon, “the more bone you build in your 20s and 30s, the better off you’ll be in your later years.” (I’m not sure how much bone I built in my earlier years!) Get the recommended 1,000 mg of calcium a day—and do weight-bearing exercises, which help build bone—and you’ll be better off. If you can’t get enough from food, be sure to take a supplement, every day.

Calcium isn’t just good for your bones. It’s also important for strong teeth. And, when it comes to your health, studies show that it may also help prevent high blood pressure and relieve the symptoms of PMS. If you’re pregnant, though, it’s critical for the growth and development of your baby.

Breastfeeding seems to help protect you. Levels of the key bone hormone, estrogen, drop after having a baby to allow for milk production. And since low estrogen levels are typically associated with weakening of the bones, I had always thought I needed even more calcium while breastfeeding to compensate. But it turns out, that’s not the case. In fact, experts say breastfeeding moms still only need about 1,000 mg a day (prenatal vitamins do not contain enough, why you have to get the extra you need through food or an additional supplement). Breastfeeding just seems to be somewhat protective. In fact, women who get enough calcium and breastfeed actually have a lower risk of hip fractures later in life, according to one study in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Dairy isn’t the only source of calcium. Sure, everyone knows that yogurt, ice cream, cheese, milk, and other dairy products contain calcium. But if you’re not a big diary eater (I’m not as it upsets my stomach, plus my son is allergic), you need to look to other dietary sources as we do in our house. Greens like kale and Swiss chard are high in the nutrient; in fact, half a cup of spinach serves up nearly as much calcium as half a cup of lowfat milk. Salmon, shrimp, and fortified orange juice are also good sources.

It’s not only about calcium. Magnesium and vitamin D are critical to the absorption of calcium (they help convert the calcium in food and supplements to a form your body can use). You need at least 400 IU of vitamin D a day (many supplements also contain this nutrient), and 420 mg of magnesium daily.

Also, important to note: if you do take a calcium supplement, don’t take more than 500 mg of calcium at a time. (Your body can’t absorb more than this.) This is why, if you need to take more, you have to spread your doses out over the course of the day.