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updated 4/16/2004 1:42:33 PM ET 2004-04-16T17:42:33

Whether you're young, old, male or female — and especially if you're a teenager — you need calcium every day. Current recommendations advise adults to get at least 1,000 mg, teens to get at least 1,300 mg, and adults over age 50 to get 1,200 mg. Furthermore, studies have shown consuming more than 500 mg of calcium at one time may not be effective. So how do you give your body the right amount at the right time? And what role do supplements and fortified-foods play in all of this? Nutrition Notes columnist Karen Collins answers readers' questions about these issues.

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Q: Does a food or supplement providing 100 percent of Daily Value for calcium meet the needs of a woman over age 50?
A: The Daily Value used on food labels is 1,000 milligrams (mg). This amount covers the needs of most adults. However, current recommendations advise teenagers to get 1,300 mg and adults over age 50 to get 1,200 mg.

Generally, a well-balanced diet supplies about 300 mg of calcium from small amounts in a variety of foods. In combination with a food or supplement providing 100 percent of DV (1000 mg), total intake should be about 1,300 mg, thus meeting recommendations.

But studies show that when we consume more than 500 mg of calcium at a time, the calcium is not absorbed efficiently. Consequently, it is preferable to fill your calcium needs with at least two or more different calcium-rich foods or supplements at different times of the day.

Q: How much calcium is in calcium-fortified cereals?
A: Products vary. Check the Nutrition Facts label for the amount of calcium in any specific cereal. The amount is listed under “% Daily Value.”

For calcium, the Daily Value used for reference on food labels is 1000 milligrams (mg). Many of the fortified cereals now provide 10 or 15 percent of Daily Value for calcium, which equals 100 to 150 mg of calcium in the cereal itself. Some cereals provide 25 percent (250 mg) to 60 percent (600 mg).

Remember that these amounts are all based on the serving size listed on the label. If your portion differs, adjust these figures accordingly. Also, these figures are for the calcium in the cereal itself. If you add a half to one cup of milk (and consume it all), that adds another 150 to 300 mg of calcium.

While calcium-fortified cereals contain more calcium than other cereals, even one serving of these can’t provide the recommended daily total of 800 mg (for children under 9 years) or 1000 to 1300 mg for adolescents and adults. Furthermore, studies show that we effectively absorb only 500 mg of calcium at a time. Eating a jumbo bowl of fortified cereal with milk is not a recommended way to meet your daily calcium needs.

Q: Are fast-food milkshakes really a good source of calcium?
A: Yes. The smallest size shakes (usually 12 to 14 ounces) provide about 330 to 350 milligrams (mg) of calcium – slightly more than you get from a cup of milk. But if you drank twelve ounces of milk, you’d get about 450 mg of calcium.

The main disadvantage with having shakes frequently as a source of calcium is their other characteristics. There are 430 to 550 calories in even these smallest shakes. The fat content can be from 12 to over 30 grams, with sugar content from 45 to over 60 grams. Some of that sugar is naturally found in milk, but a cup of skim milk tallies only 90 calories, no fat, and 12 grams of sugar.

Even a cup of chocolate reduced-fat milk limits the total tally to 160-180 calories, 3-5 grams of fat and about 25 grams of sugar. Remember that these numbers refer to the smallest shakes. Larger sizes can have over 1,000 calories.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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