Calcium is important for optimal bone health throughout your life. Although diet is the best way to get calcium, calcium supplements may be an option if your diet falls short.
Before you consider calcium supplements, be sure you understand how much calcium you need, the pros and cons of calcium supplements, and which type of supplement to choose.
The benefits of calcium
Your body needs calcium to build and maintain strong bones. Your heart, muscles and nerves also need calcium to function properly.
Some studies suggest that calcium, along with vitamin D, may have benefits beyond bone health, perhaps protecting against cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. But evidence about such health benefits is not definitive.
The risks of too little calcium
If you don't get enough calcium, you could face health problems related to weak bones:
- Children may not reach their full potential adult height.
- Adults may have low bone mass, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis.
Many Americans don't get enough calcium in their diets. Children and adolescent girls are at particular risk, but so are adults age 50 and older.
How much calcium you need depends on your age and sex. Note that the upper limit in the chart represents the safe boundary — it's not how much you should aim to get. If you exceed the upper limit, you may increase your risk of health problems related to excessive calcium.
|Calcium: Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults|
|Men||Daily RDA||Daily upper limit|
|19-50 years||1,000 mg||2,500 mg|
|51-70 years||1,000 mg||2,000 mg|
|71 and older||1,200 mg||2,000 mg|
|19-50 years||1,000 mg||2,500 mg|
|51 and older||1,200 mg||2,000 mg|
Calcium and vitamin D
Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. For this reason, some calcium supplements contain vitamin D. A few foods naturally contain small amounts of vitamin D, such as canned salmon with bones, and egg yolks. You can also get vitamin D from fortified foods and sun exposure. The RDA for vitamin D is 600 international units (15 micrograms) a day for most adults.
Calcium and diet
Your body doesn't produce calcium, so you must get it through other sources. Calcium can be found in a variety of foods, including:
- Dairy products, such as cheese, milk and yogurt
- Dark green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli and kale
- Fish with edible soft bones, such as sardines and canned salmon
- Calcium-fortified foods and beverages, such as soy products, cereal and fruit juices
Even if you eat a healthy, balanced diet, you may find it difficult to get enough calcium if you:
- Follow a vegan diet
- Have lactose intolerance and limit dairy products
- Consume large amounts of protein or sodium, which can cause your body to excrete calcium
- Have osteoporosis
- Are receiving long-term treatment with corticosteroids
- Have certain bowel or digestive diseases that decrease your ability to absorb calcium, such as inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease
In these situations, calcium supplements may help you meet your calcium requirements.
Types of calcium supplements
Several different kinds of calcium compounds are used in calcium supplements. Each compound contains varying amounts of the mineral calcium — referred to as elemental calcium. Common calcium supplements may be labeled as:
- Calcium carbonate (40 percent elemental calcium)
- Calcium citrate (21 percent elemental calcium)
- Calcium gluconate (9 percent elemental calcium)
- Calcium lactate (13 percent elemental calcium)
The two main forms of calcium supplements are carbonate and citrate. Calcium carbonate is cheapest and therefore often a good first choice. Other forms of calcium in supplements include gluconate and lactate.