Calcium: Should I Supplement or Not?

This article was written by Joan Nelson PA-C. Joan is currently accepting new patients of all ages and would welcome the chance to get to know you, a member of your family, or a friend who may be seeking a new personal clinician.

It used to be routine for medical providers to recommend daily calcium supplements. We regularly advised post-menopausal women (who are highest risk for osteoporosis) to take very high dose calcium supplements (up to 1500mg a day).

In the last few years there has been a lot of conflicting scientific news about calcium supplements some studies finding they might be dangerous to your heart, other studies finding they are not dangerous.

Then in February of this year the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended not taking low dose calcium supplements.

What’s a person to do? Especially a post-menopausal woman worried about osteoporosis?

It is important to keep in mind that while it is confusing, it is normal for scientific studies to conflict and have different findings. It is important to examine each study carefully (What type of people were in the study? Was the study designed to find the effects of calcium, or were the calcium results just noticed along the way?) and then look at the overall weight of all of the evidence.

Currently the science is clear on a few things:

  • Calcium is important for building strong bones as we grow and in maintaining bone health as we age.
  • Calcium alone does not prevent fractures: our bodies need vitamin D along with calcium for bone health.
  • The safest and most effective source of calcium is from eating food containing calcium, not from supplements. Why this is so is not yet clear. It may be that calcium supplements raise the blood concentration of calcium too quickly at one time, compared to the slow rise that eating foods containing calcium provides.

What foods contain calcium?

  • We most commonly think of dairy sources, but dairy foods are not the only (and may not be the best) food source of calcium.
  • Other foods high in calcium are:
    • Canned fish (sardines, salmon)
    • Dark greens (broccoli, kale, collard greens)
    • Dried beans
    • Tofu

Most people can easily get 700mg of calcium per day from food. A nice guide to the calcium content in food can be found here. It’s important to remember that dairy foods, while high in calcium, can also be high in saturated fat, and non-fat dairy options are the best choice for most people.

The Institute of Medicine currently recommends that women up to age 50 and men up to age 70 get 1000mg of calcium per day (from all sources combined). And for post-menopausal women and men over 70 this increases to 1200mg per day.

Osteoporosis is a major health problem affecting 10 million Americans (8 million of them women) and every year osteoporosis causes more than 1.5 million fractures including 300,000 broken hips. Consuming enough calcium & vitamin D, along with weight bearing exercise (walking, hiking, and weight lifting) can help prevent osteoporosis.

The Bottom Line
Aim to consume 1000-1200mg of calcium per day, primarily from food. Avoid high dose calcium supplementation, high fat dairy sources and stay physically active with regular weight bearing exercise. As always, should you have any additional questions or concerns, your GreenField clinician remains your best resource.