Dietary Calcium vs. Calcium Supplements
Calcium is one of the most important minerals in the human body and is necessary for life. Calcium not only helps build and maintain healthy bones and teeth, it also helps your body with clotting blood, sending and receiving nerve signals, contracting muscles, releasing hormones and keeping a normal heart beat.
Although the most vital time to consume adequate amounts of calcium is in childhood and adolescent years, calcium deficiency is a lifetime concern. Calcium deficiency can lead to low bone mass called osteopenia which can lead to osteoporosis, a disorder associated with weak and fragile bones leading to a much higher risk of fractures. Focusing on a diet rich in dairy foods can help prevent these disorders.
Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for each age group:
- Children ages 4 to 8 need at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day.
- Children ages 9 to 18 need at least 1,300 milligrams of calcium a day.
- Adults ages 19 to 50 need at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day.
- Women over age 50 and men over age 70 need at least 1,200 milligrams of calcium a day.
Food is the best source of calcium, and dairy foods like milk, yogurt and cheese provide some of the highest amounts in the standard American diet. You can also find smaller amounts of calcium in dark green leafy vegetables and calcium-fortified foods like certain juices, cereals, bread and snacks; however, the calcium found in these food sources are typically not as bioavailable as the calcium found in dairy foods. This means your body has more difficulty absorbing and utilizing the calcium found in these foods.
Many individuals with lactose-intolerance can also consume adequate amounts of calcium through lower lactose dairy foods like aged cheese (such as cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, Parmesan and Swiss), yogurt or lactose-free milk to still benefit from these excellent calcium sources.
Planning regular, balanced meals at home can help you and your family meet the recommendations for calcium. Here are some simple ways to add calcium throughout the day:
- Add milk to your oatmeal instead of water
- Top steamed or roasted vegetables with your favorite type of cheese
- In addition to yogurt, add milk or calcium-fortified juice to smoothies
- Make yogurt pops for a cool summer time snack
- Top your salad with shredded or grated cheese like feta or blue cheese
In addition to calcium-rich foods, supplements may also help individuals meet daily calcium recommendations. Calcium supplements should only be used to make up for any shortfalls that do not come from food such as for individuals who follow a vegan diet, or have certain digestive disease than inhibit the absorption of calcium.
Calcium supplements vary greatly and come in a variety of forms including chewable and liquid as well as different serving sizes. The two main forms of calcium supplements are calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate is often less expensive and is better absorbed when taken with food. Calcium citrate does not need to be taken with food, but is often more expensive. Vitamin D helps absorb calcium so look for a supplement that also contains vitamin D. Your body can only absorb so much calcium at once. When taking supplements, take no more than 500 mg at one time.
Focusing on consuming a variety of dairy products throughout the day will help you meet your calcium needs, likely without the need for calcium supplements. If you do decide to incorporate supplements into your wellness plan, be sure to consult with your physician and a registered dietitian first. Excessive calcium intake is often associated with supplementation and can result in adverse health effects. So think food first, supplements second, and always follow the advice of your personal health care provider.