Avoid the Calcium Confusion

Avoid the Calcium Confusion

“That’s life,” crooned Frank Sinatra, “… riding high in April, shot down in May.” And even though the song isn’t about calcium, it could have been with all the crazy ups and downs that this bone-building mineral has suffered in the news lately.

In two studies, people who got an extra dose of calcium from food or pills didn’t prevent fractures. Some media reports twisted the message, with headlines like “Calcium from Supplements or Dairy Doesn't Strengthen Bones.” So we’re going to give you the big picture on making sure you get enough calcium absorption and other smart steps to protect your bone health.

The two studies that triggered the confusing headlines looked at 59 bone density studies involving 13,790 people over age 50 and at fractures in more than 45,000 people. Bumping up calcium intake increased bone density slightly in some and reduced breaks a little in others, but the researchers say the benefits were very small and boosted the risk for kidney stones for some.

That’s bad news if you’ve been counting on calcium alone to make sure you’re not among the one in four women and one in 20 men in North America with thinning bones. The truth is bone and calcium are just part of the story. Calcium helps with blood pressure regulation, muscle function and the production of hormones; if you don’t have enough on board, your body borrows from the 99% stored in your skeleton. But strong bones need more than one mineral to stay tough.

Follow these five steps for all-round healthy bones, but don’t cross dairy, dairy alternatives or supplements off your shopping list.

Add D. Aim for 1,000 IU daily of D-3, also known as cholecalciferol. It helps your body absorb and use calcium. Check your level and make sure it’s over 30. We aim for 50 to 80.

Don’t over-do calcium supplements. Start by looking at how much you get from food, daily; every dairy serving provides around 300mg; fortified cereals and juices double that. Whole grain bread, (or bread alternatives) and green, leafy veggies (half-cup of cooked spinach) deliver 60-120mg per serving, too. Most women get about 625mg a day from food, men about 810mg. Aim for: 1,000mg a day (from food) for women under age 51 and men under age 71; 1,200mg a day from food after that. Don’t overdo it. Too much won’t help your bones and can raise kidney stone (and possibly prostate and breast cancer) risk.

Avoid bone-robbers. Smoking, an overload of sodium, too much alcohol, cola can increase your risk for osteoporosis by robbing calcium from your body. Stick with one alcoholic drink a day for women, two for men. Say ‘no thanks’ to soda, fast food, canned soup and jarred spaghetti sauce (read labels).

Hit your protein target. Getting enough helps keep muscles and bones strong. Older adults need at least 20-25 grams at every meal. Get yours from nonfat Greek yogurt, three ounces of fish or skinless chicken breast, a cup of red, black or navy beans, or a fresh-ground peanut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread.

Stimulate bones with exercise. Like a never-ending highway repair project, cells inside your bones are constantly rebuilding the tough, microscopic structures that keep them strong. Good stress and weight-bearing exercises like walking or running up and down hills is great. So is strength training. In a recent University of Missouri study in men, 60-120 minutes of weightlifting or jumping exercises per week improved bone density after six months. (We recommend 40 jumps per day!)

Medically reviewed in May 2019.

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