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Nutritionally Speaking

The Great U.S. Calcium Deficiency

May 19, 1988|TONI TIPTON

A U.S. Department of Agriculture food survey estimates that as few as two out of every three Americans are currently consuming less than 800 mg. of calcium in their daily diets. That figure represents at least 200 mg. less than the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for the mineral. And because of concerns for osteoporosis, some leading researchers are considering recommending that the RDA be increased to as much as 1500 mg. for some people.

Intakes of this amount are generally thought to protect against the bone deterioration process (osteoporosis) commonly associated with aging. It appears to be more prevalent in women and usually sets in some time after menopause.

Jeanne Polak, registered dietitian and professor of Family and Consumer Studies at Valley College in Van Nuys, recently answered questions regarding the RDA for calcium and some of the problems of achieving this goal.

Question: Is there a need for calcium beyond the RDA of 800 mg.?

Answer: Yes. For several reasons. First of all, the RDA only takes care of people up to the age of 51, then makes suggestions for those above 51. There's not a whole lot of research done for senior citizens. . . . We need a lot more studies, but one thing that happens as people grow older is that we absorb nutrients less than when we're young, so it's inferred that if you absorb nutrients less well, then you'll need more of certain nutrients.

Q: Why is exercise and higher calcium intake recommended as people age?

A: Women experience a drop in hormones as they go through menopause, so there is a tendency for women to become this way (osteoporotic). To counteract this, they have to become more active and increase dietary calcium.

Q: Is it OK to meet this increase with supplements?

A: No. We have to be careful not to achieve (this goal) through pills. It's (calcium) much better absorbed through foods. There are various reasons for absorption problems. But one thing that helps keep balance is regular intake of calcium, exercise and hormone balances.

Q: Aren't there people for whom this really doesn't matter. They'll lose the bone mass or maintain it regardless?

A: One of the big things about calcium intake and its relation to osteoporosis, is that women with stronger bones or more dense bones have less of a problem. We all tend to lose bone mass (as we get older) but, if those bones are strong to start with, they suffer less. So if you don't keep up your intake of calcium, you eventually use up more than you take in. This is just a gradual process that starts, probably after the age of 35, and is accelerated during the first five years after menopause.

Q: So what can women do to prevent this bone deterioration?

A: Weight-bearing exercise, cycling slowly and walking is probably the best--any kind of exercise that pulls against gravity and one that can be done routinely. But, taking huge quantities (of supplements) isn't going to do that much. It isn't going to build bones from scratch--they're formed when we're young. What we want to do is maintain them, but we're not going to build a strong one from a weak one. We can hope to arrest deterioration.

For more answers to calcium-related questions, the Dallas Osteoporosis Center in Texas has established the Calcium Hot Line (800) 722-BONE. Staffed by medical professionals and funded by Citrus Hill Plus Calcium, the system is a "central source of reliable information that is easily accessible to the consumer," said Dr. Sydney Lou Bonnick, medical director of the center.


1 tablespoon butter or margarine

1/3 cup thinly sliced almonds

1 (10 3/4-ounce) can cream of asparagus soup

1 soup can milk

2 tablespoons vermouth or dry white wine

1/2 cup crab meat

Sweet red pepper strips

Melt butter in 1 1/2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook almonds until lightly browned. Reserve few almonds for garnish.

Stir in soup, then gradually stir in milk, vermouth and crab meat. Reduce heat to low and simmer 5 minutes or until hot. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with reserved almonds and pepper strips. Makes 3 servings.


2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons sliced green onions

4 cups sliced lettuce

2 (10 3/4-ounce) cans condensed creamy natural spinach soup

1 soup can milk

1 cup chicken broth

Melt butter in 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Cook green onions until tender. Add lettuce and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until lettuce is tender. Stir in soup, then gradually stir in milk and broth. Heat thoroughly, stirring occasionally.

Blend half of soup mixture in covered blender container or food processor. Blend in remaining half until smooth. Makes 6 servings.


1 (10 3/4-ounce) can condensed cream of broccoli soup

1 soup can milk

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

1/2 teaspoon chopped chives

Dash ground nutmeg

Place soup in 1 1/2-quart saucepan. Gradually stir in milk, cheese, chives and nutmeg. Heat to simmering over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Simmer until cheese is melted. Makes 3 servings.

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