If there’s one piece of nutrition advice I’ve doled out again and again over the years, it’s this: Before reaching for dietary supplements, first try to get your nutrients from a healthful, balanced diet. But sometimes diet alone won’t cut it, and then supplements can help. For some women, calcium is one of those nutrients.
Betting on this bone builder
Did you know that 99% of the calcium in your body is in your teeth and bones? It’s vital to bone and dental health, and it’s particularly important for women because their risk of osteoporosis—a potentially serious and debilitating condition characterized by bone loss—goes up significantly after menopause. Calcium may have other benefits as well. Emerging studies show that a calcium-rich diet may lower your risk for obesity, high blood pressure and colorectal cancer. So, how do you get enough in your diet?
Get your daily dose
Good sources of calcium include low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese; calcium-fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, orange juice and soy milk; calcium-set tofu; fish with edible bones such as canned sardines and canned salmon; and green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, collard greens, kale and bok choy. Now, as much as I love tofu and broccoli (yes, I really do!), I’ll be the first to admit that eating several servings of calcium-rich foods every single day isn’t easy. In these cases, supplements are a big help. Supplements can also be important for postmenopausal women who are at greater risk of bone loss related to hormonal changes.
So, how do you pick a good calcium supplement from among the myriad in the pharmacy shelves? Talk to your healthcare provider first to make sure you’re not risking interactions with any other medications you’re taking. For example, don’t take a supplement along with an antacid, as the medicine may block the absorption of the supplement. Second, ask how much you should be taking—don’t assume that more is better.
Take your supplements with food to enhance absorption. Try breaking up doses across the course of the day: for example, if you need to take 1,000 milligrams (mg) total, take 500 mg with breakfast and 500 mg with dinner. Common forms include calcium citrate, calcium carbonate and calcium gluconate. I find calcium citrate the easiest on my stomach.
Don’t forget the D
Adequate vitamin D is important for helping your body absorb calcium. Sometime this year the Institute of Medicine is expected to increase both the daily recommended levels as well as the amount of vitamin D in food fortification.
Sunshine, foods and supplements are the three main sources of vitamin D. Sensible sun exposure of five to ten minutes in most climates a few times a week is good for skin synthesis of vitamin D from the sun.
Don’t go crazy, however—vitamin D can be toxic in very high doses. The government has currently set 2,000 milligrams a day as the “upper limit” for safe intake from all sources combined each day.