Calcium During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding
During pregnancy and while breastfeeding, your body needs extra calcium for your growing fetus and newborn. What you probably don't know is that calcium benefits a lot more than just your bones and pays off well beyond pregnancy.
1. Pregnancy Hormone's Affect on Calcium
During pregnancy, your fetus’ developing bones and your fluctuating
hormones draw on your body’s calcium, so the total level of calcium in your blood drops. This drop does not affect your bone strength, however. Several hormonal changes compensate for this decrease in calcium to make sure your body has enough calcium for your own bones and for the growing fetus. In fact, your body is in calcium overdrive, building bone almost twice as fast as when you were not pregnant. That is why getting adequate calcium in your diet is so important.
2. Start Early
The sooner—well before pregnancy—you include
calcium-rich foods in your
preconception diet, the stronger your bones will be and the more calcium reserves you’ll be able to draw on to support your fetus and newborn.
3. Daily Dosage During Pregnancy
The National Institutes of Health recommends at least 1,200 milligrams a day. A typical
prenatal vitamin has about 200 milligrams. Taking calcium carbonate supplements (like an over-the-counter antacid) gives you about 600 milligrams in three chewable tablets. So even with good supplements, you still need to get a good deal of your calcium from your diet.
4. Milk Does a Body Good, But...
Milk products are high in calcium, but they are also often high in fat and difficult to digest. Seventy percent of people are lactose intolerant, meaning they are not able to digest the sugars in milk. Lactose intolerance can cause uncomfortable bloating, gas, and even diarrhea. So milk products are not an easy choice for calcium for most people.
5. Foods High in Calcium
You may be surprised to learn how many other healthy foods are high in calcium. Leafy greens, such as Chinese cabbage and collards, are an excellent source of calcium. Canned fish, like salmon, is packed with bones, so it is also a good source of calcium. Many common staples, like bread and cereal, are fortified with calcium to help us meet our calcium RDA (recommended daily allowance).
6. Calcium-Rich Shopping List
These foods should be at the top of your grocery list:
7. Absorbing Calcium
Your body absorbs calcium best in a well-balanced meal, where you are also getting other necessary vitamins and minerals. Studies have shown that calcium is absorbed in small doses, and eating stimulates the acids and digestive enzymes that help absorb calcium in the digestive system.
8. Calcium Supplements
Calcium supplements are another way to meet your calcium needs, especially during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, though supplements should also be taken with meals to maximize absorption. If you are choosing a supplement, get one with calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, or calcium lactate. Avoid supplements made from bone meal, which may contain lead. Many over-the-counter antacids (like Tums) are simply calcium carbonate. Look for prenatal vitamins with both calcium and 200 to 400 IU (international units) of vitamin D.
9. Remember the Sunshine
Keep in mind that your body needs vitamin D to help absorb that calcium. So getting enough sunshine (which helps your body activate vitamin D) and drinking vitamin D-enriched milk is also essential for absorbing enough calcium. (Don’t forget the sunscreen!)
10. Calcium Needs While Breastfeeding
During breastfeeding, your estrogen levels drop very low (just like after menopause). This is why it is rare to become pregnant while breastfeeding. Because of these low estrogen levels and because you are giving your baby a healthy supply of calcium, your own calcium level falls very low. When breastfeeding, your bones start to lose some of their strength. Most women lose between 3 to 5 percent of their bone density during the first 10 to 18 weeks of breastfeeding.
11. Keep Up the Supplements
Keeping up your balanced, calcium-rich diet while breastfeeding is critical—and continue taking your prenatal vitamins and calcium supplements while breastfeeding. You still need at least 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. Keep in mind that the better shape your bones were in before and during pregnancy, the better off you’ll be after the intense period of breastfeeding.
12. A Lifetime of Calcium Heath
Calcium is an important concern during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. But calcium should be a central part of your diet every day because of its long-term health benefits. Keep up the good habits you develop during pregnancy, when you are worrying about your growing fetus’ bones. Getting enough calcium today, as part of a well-balanced diet and a regular exercise program, is the best move you can make to reduce the risks of osteoporosis, heart disease, high cholesterol, and depression in the long run. Calcium is not just about the skeleton—it’s about the big picture.
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