Should I Take a Calcium Supplement?

Dr. Sharon Orrange
Dr. Orrange is an Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine in the Division of Geriatric, Hospitalist and General Internal Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Posted on

Calcium is good for your bones right? Well, the science on calcium supplements and dietary calcium just got fuzzier—and it was already pretty fuzzy.

Osteoporosis is a decrease in bone mass that occurs because, after the age of 30, we resorb bone but don’t make any new. Unlike pain and stiffness from osteoarthritis, osteoporosis doesn’t hurt or cause pain—that is, until you have a hip or spine fracture. One in five of us will be dead in a year after a hip fracture; that’s why osteoporosis matters.

Many people take calcium thinking they are helping their bones, but that may not be true. calcium with vitamin D, Caltrate, calcium citrate, Citracal and Viactiv are among the many types of calcium supplements people take. You might not need them.

Here are 10 surprising facts about calcium supplements.

  1. A recent meta-analysis of 70 studies in the British Medical Journal found that neither calcium supplements nor dietary calcium in people over 50 prevented fractures, and only minimally raised bone density.
  2. Taking calcium supplements (without vitamin D) has been found in some studies to raise the risk of heart attack, possibly by increasing calcification (hardening) of the arteries and veins.
  3. Most recommendations agree that you should try and get your calcium intake through diet not supplements.
  4. Nobody should exceed more than 2000 mg in calcium supplements a day, and many folks do, thinking it’s a good idea.
  5. There is no question that adequate nutrition is important.
  6. While the optimal intake of calcium and vitamin D is uncertain, in general 800 mg of calcium in your diet and 800 – 1000 IU of vitamin D is recommended.
  7. A rough way to calculate your dietary calcium intake is to think of each serving of dairy as 300 mg of calcium. Eight ounces of yogurt or milk and 1 oz of hard cheese each give you 300 mg calcium per serving.  
  8. Cottage cheese and ice cream have less calcium per serving than milk or yogurt.
  9. Dark green veggies (always a good idea) also provide you with calcium, but only about 150 mg per serving.
  10. In women 65 and over and men over 70 (or between 50 and 70 if they have risk factors) a bone density scan is recommended to screen for osteoporosis. If you have bone thinning or osteoporosis, talk to your doctor about options for treatment.

Dr O.

Drugs featured in this story

Filed under