Calcium is a mineral that is essential for life! It is not only necessary for building and maintaining healthy strong bones, but it is also involved in other important bodily functions such as muscle contractions and neurotransmissions. Over 99% of the calcium in our bodies resides in the bones and teeth. Each day, we naturally lose calcium through our skin, nails, hair, sweat, urine and feces, but our bodies cannot produce new calcium. In other words, when we don’t get enough calcium through the diet, our body pulls it from our bones, causing them to become more fragile and thus increasing our risk for fractures. Think of your bones as a calcium savings account where you “deposit” and “withdraw” calcium on a daily basis. Bones only become strong and healthy if you invest appropriately. After the age of 20-25 when bone growth reaches its maximum genetic potential, bone “withdrawals” can begin to exceed “deposits.” For many people this bone loss can be prevented by continuing to obtain recommended intakes of nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D. Other nutrition and lifestyle habits such as regular exercise as well as, avoiding tobacco and excessive alcohol intake are also important. Obtaining adequate vitamin D through diet and/or sun exposure is equally important since it helps your GI tract absorb calcium and then helps your body pull it into the bones.
The amount of calcium and vitamin D you need depends on your age and gender. The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) recommends the following intakes of calcium and vitamin D based on your gender and age:
|Age 50 & younger||1,000 mg/day||400-800 IU/day|
|Age 51 & older||1,200 mg/day||800-1000 IU/day|
|Age 70 & younger||1,000 mg/day||400-800 IU/day|
|Age 71 & older||1,200 mg/day||800-1000 IU/day|
NOF also has an online Calcium Calculator for those of you interested in estimating your daily intake. The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 3 cups of low or non-fat milk daily. For each absent serving of dairy you should supplement with ~250-300 mg of calcium.
Calcium, particularly the use of supplemental calcium has recently been “under fire” for its potential link to heart attacks. I can tell you the scientific data is not supportive of this widely publicized theory. Along side a group of esteemed scientists, I recently published the article “A Review of Calcium Supplements and Cardiovascular Disease” in one of the leading nutrition journals, Advances in Nutrition. The review found no evidence to suggest changing supplement regimens based on the current scientific literature in relation to calcium and cardiovascular outcomes (e.g. heart attacks). The reality is that in the same way plastic surgeons sometimes give crooked nose jobs; likewise research scientists often publish bad data. The bottom line is get enough but not too much calcium and vitamin D from food. Use supplements to fill any gaps. Every large human clinical trial to date has confirmed the safety of calcium from food and supplements (except some very small cases of increased kidney stones among those who had high calcium intakes and prior stone formation) when taken at recommended levels.
In other words, if grandma doesn’t get enough calcium and vitamin D, she will increase her chance of hip fracture considerably; ¼ of older individuals who experience a hip fracture do not survive more than one year.
Now as usual, I’m not suggesting you overstock on calcium and vitamin D supplements. Remember your body only absorbs ~400 mg of calcium at a time. You should not exceed the 2,000 mg/day tolerable upper intake level (UL) for calcium as recommended by the U.S. Institute of Medicine. There is no benefit of consuming more than the NOF recommended intakes of calcium (some new research suggests higher amounts of vitamin D may be better… but that’s a separate blog). Keep in mind that more is not always better bone head!