Healthy Body

Your Calcium Supplement Probably Isn’t the Best Way To Reap Bone Benefits

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Photo: Getty Images / Guido Mieth
Since the days when milk-mustached celebrities graced magazine pages, most of us have understood that calcium and strong bones go together like, well, milk mustaches and famous people. And for many of us, calcium supplements are a surefire way to reach our goals.  Yes, we need calcium to keep our bones strong—but before you reach for calcium supplements, there are a few things to consider. 

Why you need calcium

In the land of calcium benefits, bone health is king. After all,  calcium supports skeletal health, the National Association for Osteoperosis says. But your body actually needs the nutrient for a number of equally important functions. In addition to your bones, your heart, muscles, hormones, and nerves all require calcium to function properly. 

The mineral also provides a host of benefits outside of maintaining your body’s status quo. Not only does it fend off osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle, but studies show calcium can help lower blood pressure and decrease your risk for diabetes and colon cancer.

That said, your body doesn’t produce calcium on its own, and if you don’t consume the amount you need, your body will take it from your bones, weakening them and putting you at risk for fractures. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, women who are 50 and younger require 1,000 milligrams of calcium each day. Women 51 and older should aim for 1,200 milligrams each day. Men younger than 70 need about 1,000 milligrams, and those who are 71 and over should aim for 1,200 milligrams each day.

Should you supplement

It might seem that calcium supplements are a simple way to ensure you’re getting enough of the bone-loving nutrient, but they aren't a panacea.  Even though many of us don't get enough calcium each day, supplementation is most beneficial for people being treated for osteoporosis or who are at high risk for calcium deficiency, including postmenopausal women and people who avoid dairy, the Mayo Clinic explains. But if you don’t fall into one of those categories, or if you’re getting a good amount of calcium through your diet, your calcium chew may not be your safest option. 

Why? When it comes to calcium, more doesn’t mean better. According to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), the absorption rate of calcium drops drastically when you consume more than you need. What happens to all the extra calcium? Research shows it accumulates in body tissues (aka soft tissue calcification), which can create a myriad of health issues including kidney stones, constipation, and heart issues, the Cleveland Clinic explains. That’s why, in addition to daily intake recommendations, calcium also comes with upper limits. According to the ODS, adults between the ages of 19 and 50 shouldn't exceed more than 2,500 milligrams per day, and older adults should cap their consumption at 2,000 milligrams.

Additionally, a 2016 report published in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests a link between calcium supplements and an increased risk of calcium buildup in the coronary arteries. While the research shows coronary artery disease is only associated with—not caused by—taking calcium supplements, no such relationship exists when calcium is consumed through food alone.

Other studies have linked calcium supplements to an increased risk for colon polyps, kidney stones, and cardiovascular events. Although more research is needed to fully understand the risks associated with calcium supplements, it’s important to talk to your doctor to see if your daily calcium intake needs a supplemental boost.

How to get more calcium from food

The good news is you don’t need supplements to get enough calcium. “Most adults can meet their calcium intake through food and fortified foods depending on their current eating pattern and food preferences,” says Candace O’Neill, RD, a dietician with the Cleveland Clinic’s Executive Health Program in Florida.   

If milk is what immediately comes to mind when you think calcium, it’s for good reason. “Commonly known calcium-rich foods are dairy, such as, milk, yogurt, and cheese,” says O’Neill. But if your meal plans exclude dairy, she recommends fortified nut milk, tofu made with calcium, beans, canned sardines, salmon, almonds, and chia seeds. Dark leafy greens can also do the trick, but not all of them, she says. Kale, broccoli, and bok choy are standouts, but “some greens, like spinach, contain calcium but it is poorly absorbed due to an antinutrient called oxalates,” says O’Neill.

Here’s the kicker: getting enough calcium is actually a two-step process. First, you must eat foods that contain calcium, and then your body must absorb the nutrient. “For optimal calcium absorption, it is important to have sufficient levels of Vitamin D,” explains O’Neill. And, well, Vitamin D isn’t easy to get either. “Only a handful of foods contain vitamin D,” says O’Neill. And although most people do not consume enough vitamin D, you can always try increasing your time in the sun.

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