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September 15, 2010

Should You Take Calcium Supplements?

The Hood Answer Mom, Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

Calcium garners a lot of attention for being an important nutrient, and deservedly so. This vital mineral is involved in building and maintaining strong bones, and it's necessary for a normal heartbeat and vital to muscle function, too.

Most children and women don't get enough calcium from food.  But recent scientific evidence suggests you can also have too much of a good thing, usually by way of dietary supplements.

Calcium Supplements vs. Calcium From Food

A July 2010 British Medical Journal (BMJ) article contained the latest caution about calcium supplements.  It reviewed the results of 11 clinical trials that included 12,000 men and women over the age of 40 who took at least 500 milligrams of calcium daily or a placebo - a "dummy" pill with no benefits or effects - for an average of three and a half years.  The researchers found that the supplement-takers were 30% more likely to have a heart attack than those in the studies who took no calcium pills.

A recent Swedish study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that men with the highest intakes of calcium from food - an average of 1, 953 milligrams a day- and who did not take calcium supplements, were 25% less likely to die of any natural cause over the course of 10 years.  It's not clear whether these results apply to women.

A few studies don't dictate nutrition recommendations, and all research should be put into context. For example, too much calcium without adequate vitamin D may not be effective in preventing bone fracture, or heart attacks.  The people in the BMJ study were not supplemented with vitamin D, only calcium, so it's not completely clear that calcium supplements, with adequate vitamin D, is harmful to heart health.

Calcium: How Much Do You Need?

How much calcium does your family need every day? See the chart below.

Age: Recommendation
1-3 years: 500 milligrams
4-8 years: 800 milligrams
9-18 years: 1,300 milligrams
19-50 years: 1,000 milligrams
50+ years: 1,200 milligrams

(Calcium needs don't change with pregnancy or when you're nursing.)

Calcium: Take the "Foods First" Approach

Do your best to get the calcium you need from foods first. Why? A single food contains several nutrients that often work together to promote health.  You just can't find those beneficial relationships among nutrients in dietary supplements. 

The easiest way to get the calcium you require is to drink three to four eight-ounce glasses of Hood Milk every day. Each eight-ounce glass provides about 300 milligrams of calcium, and serves up half of the minimum daily requirement for vitamin D. If you don't love plain milk, prepare oatmeal and condensed soups with milk instead of water to include a serving, and make smoothies,  and muffins with milk.

Here are some other calcium-rich foods:


Food    Calcium (milligrams)
Yogurt, plain (1 cup)    415
Simply Smart Milk (1 cup)350
Yogurt, fruit-flavored (1 cup)    345
LACTAID Milk (1 cup)    300
Orange juice, calcium and vitamin D-added (1 cup)    300
Cheddar cheese (1 ounce)204
Tofu, firm, prepared with calcium sulfate and magnesium chloride (1/4 block)163
Hood Chocolate Fat Free Frozen Yogurt  (1/2 cup)150
Hood Low Fat Cottage Cheese (1/2 cup)100
Broccoli, cooked (1 cup)94
Calcium Supplements Are Second to Food, But Useful


Here's the bottom line when it comes to any dietary supplement, including calcium pills. Supplements are just what the name implies, and they are not suitable substitutes for a balanced diet. 

However, dietary supplements serve a purpose by filling in small nutrient gaps. If you or your child does not meet the suggested calcium quotas with food, consider a calcium pill to make up what's missing. But don't go overboard with calcium.  More is not necessarily better. 

Elizabeth M. Ward

Elizabeth M. Ward

Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D., is a writer, nutrition consultant, and mother of three. She is the author of several books, including MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better and Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, & After Pregnancy . Ward is also a contributing writer for Muscle & Fitness Hers and Men's Fitness magazines.

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