Confused About Calcium Supplements? Here's Help!

The latest news on calcium supplements got you scratching your head? Our
experts have the answers.

Health Monitor Staff
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If you’ve heard the latest news about calcium supplements—the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggests they won’t help prevent fractures in women without osteoporosis—you may be wondering whether to toss your calcium pills. The answer? Not yet! “How much calcium you need depends on your situation, so check with your doctor first,” notes Andrea Singer, MD, clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF).

Keep in mind, too, that the study looked at healthy women. “It did not address people with osteoporosis or vitamin D deficiency,” says Sundeep Khosla, MD, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist and past president of the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research.

The bottom line? Not all studies apply to all people, so stick to the plan your doctor recommends! And keep these tips in mind: 

Get calcium from food first.
“Focus on healthy living first, and add supplements as recommended by your doctor,” says Dr. Singer. As a guide, the NOF suggests aiming for the calcium intake set by the Institute of Medicine: 1,000 mg daily for women under age 50 and men under 70; and 1,200 mg daily for women over 50 and men over 70.

Don’t overdose.
“I’ve had to tell patients to cut back on their supplement dosage because they’re already getting some calcium in their diet. Getter higher doses than what is recommended—over 1,200 mg daily—may cause problems,” Dr. Singer says. For example, too much calcium could lead to kidney stones.

Use the right kind.
Look for a product with the purity symbol “USP” (United States Pharmacopeia) on the label. Otherwise, “they’re all pretty similar, as long as you take your supplement with meals,” notes Dr. Khosla. Calcium carbonate is the cheapest, but if it causes constipation, or if you’re on medication that blocks stomach acid, calcium citrate may be a better choice, says Dr. Khosla (check with your healthcare provider).

Know your vitamin D level.
Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium, explains Dr. Singer. Ask your doctor if you need a blood test to check for vitamin D deficiency  

If you’re taking osteoporosis medications, you need to get enough calcium and vitamin D. Check with your doctor before stopping supplements.

Concerned about calcium and heart disease?
Some research suggests supplemental calcium could raise the risk of heart disease and stroke. But the jury’s still out, says Sundeep Khosla, MD, a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist who adds that “there’s no evidence that dietary calcium will have an impact. I tell patients not to get more than 1,200 mg a day, with as much as possible coming from your diet.”


May 2013