You know you need calcium to keep your bones strong, but do you know how much calcium you need and how much you’re actually getting from your diet? If you’re not concerned because you take a daily calcium supplement, it may be wise to reconsider your strategy.
The idea that all postmenopausal women should take a calcium supplement every day is outdated. If you’ve been taking a calcium supplement for years or even decades, you may be getting more calcium than you need. However, it’s also possible that you are absorbing less calcium than your body requires, and you may be missing out on other important nutrients if you’re not eating any foods that contain calcium. Rather than popping a pill, experts advise getting your calcium from foods and beverages whenever possible.
Your Daily Dose
The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that adults ages 19 to 50 get 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily, while women over age 50 and men over age 70 should aim for 1,200 milligrams. For your body to use calcium properly, you also need adequate vitamin D; the adult Recommended Dietary Allowance is 600 International Units (IU), rising to 800 IU for both women and men over age 70.
Calcium is essential for building and maintaining strong bones. Calcium is particularly important for postmenopausal women, who are at much higher risk of developing osteoporosis and suffering bone fractures than men of the same age. Your body also needs calcium for blood circulation and clotting, regulating your heartbeat, sending and receiving nerve signals, and muscle movement. Calcium is also involved in processes that release hormones and other chemicals.
How do you make sure you’re getting enough calcium in your diet? Many Americans get their calcium primarily from dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese; if you consume one serving of each of these calcium-rich foods daily, you’ll get approximately 1,000 mg of calcium.
If you’re lactose intolerant or don’t consume much dairy, you can obtain calcium from green, leafy vegetables such as kale, broccoli, collard greens, and bok choy. Other good sources include legumes such as beans, soybeans, and black-eyed peas. Figs, almonds, carrots, sweet potatoes, oranges, and squash all contain modest amounts of calcium. If you eat salmon or sardines canned with their soft bones, you’re getting a calcium bonus along with heart-healthy omega-3s.
You can also get calcium by consuming foods that have been fortified; some cereals, juices, tofu, and non-dairy “milks” contain as much or more calcium per serving as you’d get from an 8-ounce glass of milk. Check the ingredient list; if you see any form of calcium listed, the product has had calcium added to it.
The Calcium Controversy
Although it’s clear that your body needs calcium to function optimally, what isn’t so clear is whether your heart health may be jeopardized by getting too much calcium. Coronary artery calcium (CAC)—calcium that is found in plaque in the arteries that surround the heart—is a sign of coronary artery disease. Studies focusing on calcium supplementation and cardiovascular disease have yielded mixed results. Some studies have linked taking calcium supplements with a higher risk of heart attack and higher CAC scores.
However, another analysis found no relationship—neither harm nor benefit—between calcium intake (from food or supplements, with or without vitamin D intake) and cardiovascular disease. This finding was based on a daily calcium intake that did not exceed the IOM’s upper limits of 2,500 milligrams (mg) daily for ages 19-50 and 2,000 mg for ages 51 and older.
Another study adds further support to the recommendation to get calcium from diet rather than supplements. The review, which was published in JAMA in late 2017, reported that, among adults ages 50 and older, those who took calcium supplements, with or without extra vitamin D, were no less likely to suffer bone fractures than those who didn’t use supplements.
A Word on Supplements
If you worry that you’re not getting enough calcium from your diet, discuss supplementation with your doctor. If you decide that you need to supplement, take only the dose needed to make up for what you’re not getting from your diet. Also, your body can absorb only about 500 mg of calcium at once, so there’s no point in taking higher doses.
If you’re not sure how much calcium you get from your diet, consult a registered dietitian; he or she can evaluate your diet and determine whether you are getting enough calcium, as well as many other nutrients, and work with you to create a diet that is best for you.
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