Episode 40 - A Key Nutrient Endurance Athletes Need Every Day: Calcium

A Key Nutrient Endurance Athletes Need Every Day: Calcium

As an endurance athlete, calcium is a key nutrient you need to be on top of. Every. Single. Day. 

Calcium is not only important for building strong bones and teeth, it’s also important for every single muscle contraction. If we’re not getting enough calcium from our diet, we borrow it from our bones. If this delicate balance is tipped in the wrong direction too often, we run the risk of having weak or porous bones. Not ideal!

In the latest episode of the podcast, I dive into…

  • What role does calcium play in our body?
  • Why calcium is so important for triathletes
  • Where we get calcium from in our diet
  • How much calcium do we need? 
  • What factors affect calcium absorption

You don’t need to be a dairy consumer to get enough calcium from your diet. But, if you're not, you do need to know where to get it from and ensure you’re hitting your targets, daily!

If you’re ready to understand your calcium needs and ensure you’re hitting your daily targets with ease, join us inside the Triathlon Nutrition Academy. Join the waitlist to be the first in the door when we open again in September! Learn More HERE

Triathlon Nutrition Academy Podcast

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Episode Transcription

Episode 40 - A Key Nutrient Endurance Athletes Need Every Day: Calcium 

Taryn Richardson  00:00
Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast, the show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian, and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy to digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it. 

Taryn Richardson  00:36
Today's episode is all about one of the key nutrients every triathlete needs to make sure they're getting every single day. And that's calcium. If you don't have normal dairy products, because you are vegan or vegetarian and don't have dairy, or you don't tolerate dairy, so you avoid it altogether, then chances are you're not getting enough calcium in your diet. And if you like "Oh, I drink heaps of dairy, because I drink lots of milky coffees every day", then you may not be getting enough calcium in your diet, either because caffeine blocks calcium absorption. So we're going to get a little bit nerdy today. And I'm going to talk you through: why calcium is so important for us, where we get it from, how much you need and some of the factors to consider when we talk about blocking calcium absorption.

Taryn Richardson  00:48
So why is calcium important? Most people understand that we need calcium for building strong bones and strong teeth. But we also need calcium for every single muscle contraction - that synapse, so the muscle fibre, requires calcium to do that. And you know, we're talking about muscles that we need for exercise, but your heart is one big giant muscle and we need that to contract regularly, right? Otherwise, we die. We also need calcium for nerve impulses and transmission of messages, some enzyme function and blood clotting. So it's not just bones and teeth.

Taryn Richardson  02:03
Now our body has two main sources of calcium - the food that we eat and our bones. 99% of the body's calcium is found in our bones, while a small amount is dissolved in the blood. And that blood calcium is really important for the healthy functioning of our heart, our muscles, our blood and our nerves and it's very tightly regulated. It needs to stay within this tight little realm otherwise, our heart stops beating.

Taryn Richardson  02:30
So it's very important that our calcium in our blood maintains itself. Now our bones, they act like our calcium bank - they're constantly being built up and broken down in a process known as remodelling. So if we don't get enough calcium from our food, our body withdraws from that calcium bank to keep the blood level within a certain tight control. Now, while the breakdown of bone is normal, it happens all the time, bones are constantly being broken down and built up again - that's just part of the remodelling process - if the balance gets tipped too far in the direction where we're withdrawing from our calcium deposits in our bones, our whole bone density degrades. And that's not what we want, because that increases our risk of osteoporosis and fractures later on in life. And also, you know, if you fall off your bike and you've got low bone density, you're more likely to break something. And also more likely to have stress fractures too. There's lots of components to stress fractures. But making sure we have really strong bones is really important as a triathlete when we're pounding the pavement.

Taryn Richardson  03:30
Now we have this delicate balance between the blood levels, to keep our heart beating, and borrowing from our bones. So we really want to make sure we're getting enough calcium in our diet so we're not doing that - we're not tipping the scales too far in the direction of more borrowing from the bones than we're putting back into them. So how much do you need? Our requirements vary a little bit throughout the different life stages - they're higher when we're growing - so teenagers. They're higher when we're pregnant and breastfeeding to support that increased growth. And also women going through menopause where there's more rapid bone loss.

Taryn Richardson  04:04
As we get older too, calcium is not as well absorbed in the intestines compared to when we're younger and more can be lost through the kidneys. So we need more at this point too. But if you're an adult between 19 and 50, then you need about 1000mg of calcium in a day. So where do we get that from in our diet? Dairy is a very rich source of calcium, and that's all well and good if you consume dairy. You can also get calcium from things like some of the green leafy vegetables, soy and tofu, particularly firm tofu that’s set in a calcium product. You can check that in the ingredients list to check if your tofu contains a setting agent that's calcium.

Taryn Richardson  04:41
Fish has calcium as well, particularly the bones - think about tinned tuna that has the little soft bones in there that you can eat - you're eating bones, you're eating calcium.  Nuts and seeds. And there's lots of foods fortified with calcium these days - think bread, think juice, think Milo, think cereals. There's lots of products that are fortified with calcium because we know that we need it in our diets.

Taryn Richardson  05:04
Now, not all of the calcium we consume from those foods, though, is effectively absorbed. There are things that block calcium intake. Caffeine is a big one. Caffeine increases calcium excretion, so it loses calcium out through the kidneys, and we're talking about excessive intake. Now, my excessive and your excessive might be completely different - but more than four caffeinated drinks in a day. If you have double shots, and you have three or four, then you've got very high caffeine intake. Even if you consuming that with milk, then you're blocking a lot of that calcium absorption anyway. So if that's you, like, coffee is life - forget it, but maybe dial it down to one or two caffeinated beverages in a day.

Taryn Richardson  05:48
Alcohol intake and smoking also lower calcium absorption. And vitamin D deficiency, or low levels, can limit calcium absorption as well. So it's really important that you're checking your vitamin D status, and making sure you're not deficient. Because calcium and vitamin D work together to protect your bones. Calcium helps to build and maintain our strong bones, while vitamin D helps your body effectively absorb that calcium in your gut. And we do that with a hormone - calcitriol. So the active form of vitamin D. So if you're taking in enough calcium, it could be going to waste if you're deficient in vitamin D.

Taryn Richardson  06:27
We also know that calcium consumed at the same time as our iron-rich foods is less absorbed, and that's probably mechanistic in the gut, but also something going on in the bloodstream that blocks the absorption. Small amounts around 50mgs seem okay, it's the larger amounts that are more inhibitory. And the other thing that blocks calcium absorption is a high salt diet. So for a lot of triathletes who suck back sports drinks and sports products and take salt tablets, that increases calcium excretion out through the kidneys as well. So, from a health perspective, we actually want to be aiming for less than 2300mgs of sodium, or one teaspoon, of salt per day.

Taryn Richardson  07:09
Now, if you have a crapload of sodium intake for a day for, say, an Ironman, that's going to be okay - it's more the long term high sodium intake, that's a problem. As a triathlete who needs strong bones, calcium is a really important nutrient that you will need to keep on top of, particularly if you don't consume normal dairy products, whether you don't like them or you don't tolerate them, because they are our higher sources of calcium. Or if you're vegan, or you don't have animal dairy, then that's totally fine. You just need to understand where those calcium-rich foods are, that are dairy or non-animal products, and make sure you're getting enough every single day. So it's something you need to understand - where it comes from, how much each food contains, and again, making sure you're ticking off your daily requirements of calcium.

Taryn Richardson  07:59
If you're somebody that uses milk substitutes, so things like almond milk, or soy milk, or oatmeal milk, or any of those milk alternatives, we really want to make sure that they contain the same amount of calcium as normal dairy. Like, if you're consuming it as a dairy alternative, it needs to have the same benefits of dairy. But a lot of products are not actually fortified with calcium. I like to call almond milk expensive water because a lot of the products on the shelf have nothing in them. They are literally some almonds with filtered water, a bit of salt - like, what a waste of time and money! If you're consuming that because you don't tolerate it or don't want to have dairy, that's totally fine. Choose a brand that's actually going to give you enough calcium to replace the dairy that you're replacing it with. Makes sense, right?

Taryn Richardson  08:46
Reading labels is one of the things that we go through inside of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy - so you know exactly what you're looking for. When you're looking at a label or something like milk substitutes, you go, "Okay, this one's good because it's got this in it. This one's crap because it doesn't have this in it". So it's something I'll teach you, if you need to know, so that when you're looking for milk alternatives or looking for other products that are calcium-fortified or calcium-rich, you know exactly what you're looking for, to make sure you're getting your 1000mg every single day.

Taryn Richardson  09:15
So I hope that's helped spark a little bit of a fire in your belly to make sure you're ticking off this really key nutrient every day. Not once a week, not three times a week, every single day! Because our bones are so important in this sport - but also for long term health. You don't want to be old and decrepit and have osteoporosis at 50. You can't come back from that.

Taryn Richardson  09:39
We reach our peak bone mass in our early 20s. And after that, it maintains itself until we hit, sort of, menopause age, as a female. And around 70 our fracture risk increases as a male. So we need to make sure from our early 20s to those ages, that we are maintaining our bones. It's not a slow, steady decline as we get older. Because we can't build them up any stronger than when it peaks in our early 20s. We want to do a really good job of maintaining it. And that requires ticking the right boxes - every single day.

Taryn Richardson  10:15
Now if you've missed our intake for the Triathlon Nutrition Academy this round - don't stress - doors will open again in August. So click on the link in the show notes to add yourself to the waitlist. That way you'll know exactly when that's coming up. And there's also a little bonus for the people that are on the waitlist as well, if you do jump in. But between now and then I want you to start to think about how much calcium you're getting in your diet every day. Even keep a little checklist and start to tally up how much you're getting compared to how much you need. Because it's so important as an endurance athlete that you do that.


Taryn Richardson  26:56
Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned. Email me at [email protected]. You could also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media at @dietitian.approved so I can give you a shout out too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smash it in the fourth leg - nutrition!

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