Do I Need a Calcium Supplement?

  • This is a question that my clients, particularly women, ask me on a regular basis.  Calcium and vitamin D deficiencies have been hot topics for a number of years.  Here are the facts that can help you determine if you need a supplement.


    Why are calcium and vitamin D important?

    Most of the body’s calcium is stored in your bones.  In your body, calcium is needed for muscle contraction, blood clotting, maintenance of cell membranes, enzyme and hormone function, and central nervous function. When you don’t consume enough calcium, your body pulls this needed calcium from your bones. Over time, this can lead to hollowing of the bones, otherwise known as osteoporosis. This causes weak bones, which can lead to fractures, particularly of the hip, wrist, and spine. Vitamin D helps you to better absorb calcium and store it in your bones.

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    How much calcium do I need?

    Unfortunately, after the age of 30, your bones decrease in density and become more fragile if you aren’t getting enough calcium.

    • Adults under 50 years of age need at least 1,000 mg of calcium each day. 
    • That number increases to 1200 mg per day for women over 50. 
    • Once you reach the age of 70, both men and women need at least 1,200 mg per day to maintain bone strength.

    Can’t I just get calcium from the foods I eat?

    Calcium is best absorbed from the foods that we eat. So if you can meet your calcium needs through diet, you won’t need a supplement. The best sources of calcium are dairy products, including milk, cheese, and yogurt.  One cup of milk contains about 300 mg of calcium. Vegetables such as kale and broccoli are good sources of calcium, and fish with soft, edible bones (like sardines and salmon) also contain calcium. Many products such as bread, cereal, pasta, and juices are now fortified with calcium.  Milk substitutes, including almond and soy milk, contain even more calcium than a glass of cow’s milk.


    How do I get vitamin D?

    Vitamin D is a hormone that is produced when the cholesterol in your skin is exposed to sunlight, which converts it to vitamin D. Many people have become vitamin D deficient as a result of limiting sun exposure and working indoors.  Sensible sun exposure of the arms and legs (10-15 minutes a few times each week) is one of the best ways to get your needed vitamin D. 


    The current recommendation for adults is at least 600 IUs each day, and recent studies suggest that we may need even more. If you are looking to get vitamin D from your diet, dairy products are fortified with vitamin D.  Fatty fish, egg yolk, butter, margarine, beef liver, and fortified cereals are also good sources of vitamin D.


    I think I need a calcium supplement.  Which ones are best?

    When you look at the label of a calcium supplement, you need to look at the amount of “elemental calcium” (not the total calcium).  Elemental calcium is the amount of calcium that your body can absorb. The most recommended calcium supplements are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium citrate appears to be better absorbed, since it doesn’t need as much stomach acid for absorption; however, calcium carbonate is well-absorbed when taken with food.


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    Talk to your physician before starting any vitamin or mineral supplement, since calcium and vitamin D supplements can interfere with some medications.  There are common some side effects of taking a calcium supplement, including bloating, gas, and constipation. Very high doses of calcium can cause more serious effects such as kidney stones, so be sure to talk to your physician about the appropriate amount of supplement needed. A registered dietitian can help you evaluate your current diet to determine if you are meeting your needs and can show you ways to safely increase sources of vitamin D and calcium in your diet.

Published On: April 07, 2014

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