Bone-Building 101: Taking Calcium the RIGHT Way

Patient Expert

You're cruising this Web site because you have osteoporosis. Or osteopenia. Or you're getting older, and you're afraid you might be in danger of developing osteoporosis.

Good assumption: according to the National Institutes of Health, osteoporosis is "a major public health threat" for 44 million Americans. Half of all women (and 25% of all men) will have an osteoporosis-related fracture during their lifetime.

You're probably savvy enough to know that your diet should include upwards of 1500mg of calcium a day. And a minimum of 400IU vitamin D; the two fight bone loss hand in hand.

So you take your 600mg calcium/400IU vitamin D supplement every morning, with your bowl of cereal and cup of skim milk (another 300mg calcium hey, 600 + 300 = 900, you're 60% there)

Your latte grande, grabbed on the way to work, gives you another 300mg calcium. So you're at 1200mg. Settle into your desk, scarf down a carton of yogurt as you read your morning emails, and Eureka! You've basically hit your 1500mg goal.

Or not.

Guess what? "Calcium loading" doesn't work. If you take a 1000mg calcium supplement with an 8-ounce glass of milk (300mg), you'll absorb less than half the calcium you've just ingested: between 500mg and 600mg, max. That's your body's limit for calcium absorption at one sitting; the rest will be excreted.

So much for checking "daily calcium" off your list first thing in the morning, huh?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. But don't give up; you can get your recommended calcium the most effective way with a minimum of hassle. Here's a plan.

Start the day by ingesting a minimum of 500mg of calcium via food: at breakfast. Eat whatever you like (eggs, pancakes" go easy on the toaster pastries), and accompany whatever you eat with a glass of skim milk. 1 cup of milk will give you 300mg calcium; 1 1/2 cups, 450mg, approaching the max you should have.

Personally, I drink a 12-ounce glass of skim-milk Ovaltine every single morning. It satisfies my calcium need and chocolate jones at the same time!

Don't care for milk? Enjoy calcium-fortified cereal. A half-cup of Total Raisin Bran has 500mg calcium; add a splash of milk, a piece of peanut-buttered toast, and a glass of juice, and you have a tasty breakfast that satisfies more than a third of your daily calcium requirement.

Not into Total? Heck, Lucky Charms are fortified with calcium; Golden Grahams, too. In fact, a whole line of General Mills kids' cereals (Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and the Honey Nut family Cheerios and Chex) are fortified with 100mg calcium per serving. Not nearly as much as Total, but go ahead, satisfy your inner child just watch the calories.

So, breakfast is over. Notice you didn't take your daily vitamin and calcium/vitamin D supplement. That'll come later. I know, we're creatures of habit" but you don't HAVE to take your vitamins first thing in the morning. Work with me here.

Time passes. It's mid-morning; breakfast was 3 hours ago. Now's the time for that carton of yogurt; a 6-ounce carton offers about 150-250mg calcium. Make yourself a yogurt parfait with some more of that crunchy-good cereal. Whichever yogurt/cereal combination you choose, figure out a combination that'll yield about 500mg calcium. Bingo! You've just ingested your next 500mg about 3 hours after your first dose. This is good.

You're 2/3 of the way to your daily calcium goal, and you haven't even reached lunch yet. You're busy; work is hectic, or the kids need you, you miss lunch" It's not OK to miss lunch for a variety of reasons, but calcium intake's not one of them. Forget about calcium for the time being, OK? We'll worry about that final 500mg later.

Now it's suppertime. You're home; or not. Sometimes you prepare a healthy sit-down dinner; sometimes it's takeout sandwiches at the basketball game. No prob. You still don't need to think about that calcium" till you're ready for bed.

Ah-HA! Remember those supplements, the ones you didn't take first thing this morning? Now's the time for the 600mg calcium/400IU vitamin D tablet. A little bit of carbs just before bed help you sleep (I learned that in a sleep study I participated in); and calcium is absorbed more readily when taken with food. So grab a few crackers, an apple (sugar is a simple carb), or something equally light. Take your supplement, and head to bed. Your body will have all night to absorb that final 500mg.

Ensuring you get the right amount of calcium at the right time each day can be a bit of a balancing act. The program above works for me; but it may not work for you, especially if you're lactose intolerant. Bottom line, you need to spread your calcium intake out over the course of the entire day. Because if you don't, you're not getting the benefit you (and your bones) need and deserve from this critical mineral.

Next time: Is that 1500mg of calcium working as hard as it can for you?