Calcium from Foods Is a Safer Alternative
Calcium supplements have increased in popularity enormously from two decades ago, after medical professionals began touting them as an effective way to prevent loss of bone mass and osteoporosis in post-menopausal women. A recent study showed that 50 percent of older men and 70 percent of older women take calcium supplements on a regular basis.
But emerging studies have increasingly cast calcium supplements in a new, unfavorable light, and doctors are now warning consumers to nix the supplements, and rely on calcium-rich and calcium-enriched foods, to meet their calcium dietary needs.
The Basic Facts About Calcium
Calcium is an important mineral and a necessary part of a balanced diet. It is key for healthy bones, teeth, and hair.
Many people believe that once a person stops growing, they no longer need calcium, or don’t need as much of it. But that is not the case at all. Calcium is important not only for bone growth, but in the maintenance of bones, teeth and hair — throughout a person’s life.
The body also uses calcium to maintain proper function of the heart, muscles and nerves. Some studies have even suggested that calcium, combined with vitamin D, may help protect against cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.
Many Americans don’t get enough calcium in their diets. Children, adolescent girls and post-menopausal women are especially at risk. The recommended daily allowance of calcium for men and women between 19 and 50 years of age is between 1,000 and 2,500 mg a day, with the first figure being the lowest recommended amount, and the second figure the highest (though some sources recommend that a person in that age group take no more than 1,200 daily mg). The RDA for women 51 and older is 1,200 daily mg.
The body needs vitamin D to absorb and metabolize calcium. That explains why calcium and vitamin D usually go together in enriched foods, including dairy products.
Dietary calcium, then, is a necessary nutrient for all of us. But in the last several years, health professionals have begun cautioning people to shy away from supplements, as studies have come out suggesting that taking calcium supplements can raise blood calcium levels and deposit the mineral onto arterial walls, raising the risk of heart attack.
A study in Germany, published in May of 2012 in the journal Heart, followed close to 24 thousand German men and women between ages 35 and 64. Those who took calcium supplements regularly in conjunction with calcium-rich foods were 86 percent more likely to have a heart attack than those who did not take supplements. Study subjects who relied wholly on supplements for their daily calcium intake were 139 percent more likely to suffer a heart attack than those who took no supplements. The study authors concluded in their report that calcium supplements should be taken with caution.
In addition, a 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that women who took a 1,000 mg daily calcium supplement had a greater likelihood of developing kidney stones than women who took a placebo.
No heart attack or kidney stone risks have been associated with calcium from foods.
As such, recommendations now tell consumers to look to calcium-rich foods to supply their dietary calcium. Only people in the following categories should consider taking the supplements:
- Lactose-intolerant people (although switching to organic dairy products may solve the intolerance problem)
- People with osteoporosis
- People with gastrointestinal tract diseases that limit the body’s ability to absorb calcium, such as inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease
But even these folks should first consult with their physician before starting calcium supplements, as these can interfere with certain prescription medications, including blood pressure medicines and antibiotics.
Foods that are high in calcium include:
- Dairy products
- Dark green, leafy vegetables: broccoli, kale, collard greens, etc.
- Salmon, sardines, mackerel
- Calcium-enriched foods, including cereals and orange juice
Foods high in vitamin D include:
- Fortified dairy products
- Salmon and sardines
- Mushrooms (with the wide-capped varieties, such as portabella and shiitake, packing the most D vitamin)
And don’t forget! Sunshine is a great natural way to get our bodies to produce and store vitamin D, with just minutes of daily Sun exposure fulfilling a day’s requirements of this vitamin.
By Eirian Hallinan