Calcium: What’s Best for Your Bones and Health?
Those advertisements pushing milk as the answer to strong bones are almost inescapable. But does “got milk?” really translate into “got strong bones?”
The pro-milk faction believes that increased calcium intake—particularly in the form of the currently recommended three glasses of milk per day—will help prevent osteoporosis, the weakening of bones. Each year, osteoporosis leads to more than 1.5 million fractures, including 300,000 broken hips.
On the other side are those who believe that consuming a lot of milk and other dairy products will have little effect on the rate of fractures but may contribute to problems such as heart disease or prostate cancer.
Which view is right? The final answers aren’t in. But here is a summary of what’s currently known about calcium and its effects on the body.
Calcium is a mineral that the body needs for numerous functions, including building and maintaining bones and teeth, blood clotting, the transmission of nerve impulses, and the regulation of the heart’s rhythm. Ninety-nine percent of the calcium in the human body is stored in the bones and teeth. The remaining 1 percent is found in the blood and other tissues.
The body gets the calcium it needs in two ways. One is by eating foods or supplements that contain calcium. Good sources include dairy products, which have the highest concentration per serving of highly absorbable calcium, and dark leafy greens or dried beans, which have varying amounts of absorbable calcium. Calcium supplements often contain vitamin D; taking calcium paired with vitamin D seems to be more beneficial for bone health than taking calcium alone. (Read more about calcium and osteoporosis.)
The other way the body gets calcium is by pulling it from bones. This happens when blood levels of calcium drop too low, usually when it’s been awhile since having eaten a meal containing calcium. Ideally, the calcium that is “borrowed” from the bones will be replaced at a later point. But, this doesn’t always happen. Most important, this payback can’t be accomplished simply by eating more calcium.
Bone is living tissue that is always in flux. Throughout the lifespan, bones are constantly being broken down and built up in a process known as remodeling. Bone cells called osteoblasts build bone, while other bone cells called osteoclasts break down bone.
In healthy individuals who get enough calcium and physical activity, bone production exceeds bone destruction up to about age 30. After that, destruction typically exceeds production.
Osteoporosis, or “porous bones,” is the weakening of bones caused by an imbalance between bone building and bone destruction. People typically lose bone as they age, despite consuming the recommended intake of calcium necessary to maintain optimal bone health. An estimated 10 million Americans—8 million women and 2 million men—have osteoporosis. Another 34 million have low bone mass, placing them at increased risk for osteoporosis. (1)
Achieving adequate calcium intake and maximizing bone stores during the time when bone is rapidly deposited (up to age 30) provides an important foundation for the future. But it will not prevent bone loss later in life. The loss of bone with aging is the result of several factors, including genetic factors, physical inactivity, and lower levels of circulating hormones (estrogen in women and testosterone in men).
Postmenopausal women account for 80 percent of all cases of osteoporosis because estrogen production declines rapidly at menopause. Of course, men are also at risk of developing osteoporosis, but they tend to do so 5 to 10 years later than women, since testosterone levels do not fall abruptly the way estrogen does in women. It is estimated that osteoporosis will cause half of all women over age 50 to suffer a fracture of the hip, wrist, or vertebra.
Preventing osteoporosis depends on two things: making the strongest, densest bones possible during the first 30 years of life and limiting the amount of bone loss in adulthood.
There are a number of lifestyle factors that can help with the latter:
- Getting regular exercise, especially weight-bearing and muscle strengthening exercise.
- Getting adequate vitamin D, whether through diet, exposure to sunshine, or supplements.
- Consuming enough calcium to reduce the amount the body has to borrow from bone.
- Consuming adequate vitamin K, found in green, leafy vegetables.
- Not getting too much preformed vitamin A.
Several complementary strategies can help prevent or minimize bone loss during adulthood and old age. These include:
Getting Regular Exercise
Physical activity that puts some strain or stress on bones causes the bones to retain and possibly even gain density throughout life. Cells within the bone sense this stress and respond by making the bone stronger and denser. Such “weight-bearing” exercises include walking, dancing, jogging, weightlifting, stair-climbing, racquet sports, and hiking.
Swimming is a useful form of exercise for the heart and cardiovascular system. But because water supports the bones, rather than putting stress on them, it’s not considered a good “weight-bearing” exercise for bone strength. In addition, physical activity doesn’t strengthen all bones, just those that are stressed, so you need a variety of exercises or activities to keep all your bones healthy.
Another function of physical activity, probably at least as important as its direct effect on bone mass, is its role in increasing muscle strength and coordination. With greater muscle strength, one can often avoid falls and situations that cause fractures. Making physical activity a habit can help maintain balance and avoid falls.
Getting Enough Calcium
Despite the debates surrounding milk and calcium, one thing is clear: adequate calcium—both for bone development and for non-bone functions—is key to reducing the risk of osteoporosis. However, the healthiest or safest amount of dietary calcium hasn’t yet been established. Different scientific approaches have yielded different estimates, so it’s important to consider all the evidence.
Maximum-calcium-retention studies, which examine the maximum amount of calcium that can be forced into bones, suggest a fairly high requirement. To ensure that 95 percent of the population gets this much calcium, the National Academy of Sciences established the following recommended intake levels:
- 1,000 milligrams/day for those age 19 to 50
- 1,200 milligrams/day for those age 50 or over
- 1,000 milligrams/day for pregnant or lactating adult women
But the maximum-calcium-retention studies are short term and therefore have important limitations. To detect how the body adapts to different calcium intakes over a long period of time—and to get the big picture of overall bone strength—requires studies of longer duration.
The results from such long-term studies may be surprising to some. While they do not question the importance of calcium in maximizing bone strength, they cast doubt on the value of consuming the large amounts currently recommended for adults.
In particular, these studies suggest that high calcium intake doesn’t actually appear to lower a person’s risk for osteoporosis. For example, in the large Harvard studies of male health professionals and female nurses, individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than were those who drank two or more glasses per week. (2, 3) When researchers combined the data from the Harvard studies with other large prospective studies, they still found no association between calcium intake and fracture risk. (4) Also, the combined results of randomized trials that compared calcium supplements with a placebo showed that calcium supplements did not protect against fractures of the hip or other bones. Moreover, there was some suggestion that calcium supplements taken without vitamin D might even increase the risk of hip fractures. A 2014 study also showed that higher milk consumption during teenage years was not associated with a lower risk of hip fracture in older adults. (27)
Additional evidence further supports the idea that American adults may not need as much calcium as is currently recommended. For example, in countries such as India, Japan, and Peru where average daily calcium intake is as low as 300 milligrams per day (less than a third of the U.S. recommendation for adults, ages 19 to 50), the incidence of bone fractures is quite low. Of course, these countries differ in other important bone-health factors as well—such as level of physical activity and amount of sunlight—which could account for their low fracture rates.
Ideally, these issues might be resolved by randomizing a large group of adults to get different amounts of calcium and following them to see how many would eventually break a bone. In fact, a few such studies have been conducted, and they have not provided evidence of benefit, as noted above. However, most of these studies were small or of short duration, so they could not rule out the possibility of a small benefit from supplementation. Other randomized trials have combined calcium in combination with vitamin D, which could obscure the true effects of calcium.
To illustrate the different conclusions drawn from examining the same body of data, a British committee that is comparable to the U.S. group that established calcium requirements here concluded that 700 milligrams per day was enough for individuals age 19 and older.
Getting Enough Vitamin D
Vitamin D plays a critical role in maintaining bone health. When blood levels of calcium begin to drop, the body responds in several ways. It promotes the conversion of vitamin D into its active form, which then travels to the intestines (to encourage greater calcium absorption into the blood) and to the kidneys (to minimize calcium loss in the urine).
For bone health, an adequate intake of vitamin D is no less important than calcium. Vitamin D is found in milk and vitamin supplements, and it can be made by the skin when it is exposed to sunlight in the summertime. But not all sunlight is created equal. Above 40 degrees latitude (north of San Francisco, Denver, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia), the winter sunlight isn’t strong enough to promote vitamin D formation. Sunscreens also prevent the formation of vitamin D, although they are still recommended to reduce risk of sun-induced skin cancer and skin damage.
An examination of clinical trials of vitamin D for the prevention of osteoporosis found that getting 700 to 800 IUs of vitamin D per day decreases the risk of hip and non-vertebral fractures; (5) vitamin D may be even more effective when taken in conjunction with calcium. (6) A similar analysis of the effect of vitamin D on falls indicated that supplementation with vitamin D reduces the risk of falls among older individuals by more than 20 percent. (7)
Look for a multivitamin that supplies 800 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day. If your multi only has 400 IU of vitamin D, consider taking an extra supplement. Many people may need 2,000 IU per day (or more) of vitamin D for adequate blood levels, particularly if they have darker skin, spend winters at higher latitudes (such as the northern U.S.), or spend little time in the sun. If you fall into one of these groups, which would include most of the U.S. population, taking 2,000 IU is reasonable and well within the safe range. As always, it’s a good idea to discuss use of supplements with your doctor, and he or she may want to order a vitamin D blood test.
Getting Enough Vitamin K
Vitamin K, which is found mainly in green, leafy vegetables, likely plays one or more important roles in calcium regulation and bone formation. Low levels of circulating vitamin K have been linked with low bone density, and supplementation with vitamin K shows improvements in biochemical measures of bone health. (8) A report from the Nurses’ Health Study suggests that women who get at least 110 micrograms of vitamin K a day are 30 percent less likely to break a hip than women who get less than that. (9) Among the nurses, eating a serving of lettuce or other green, leafy vegetable a day cut the risk of hip fracture in half when compared with eating one serving a week. Data from the Framingham Heart Study also shows an association between high vitamin K intake and reduced risk of hip fracture in men and women, and increased bone mineral density in women. (10, 11) Getting one or more servings per day of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, dark green lettuce, collard greens, or kale should be enough to meet the daily recommended target of 120 micrograms per day for men and 90 micrograms per day for women.
Some other factors may also help lower the risk of osteoporosis:
- Take care with caffeine and cola. Although the votes aren’t all in, there is some evidence that drinking a lot of coffee—about four or more cups per day—can increase the risk of fracture. Caffeine tends to promote calcium excretion in urine. Meanwhile, the Framingham Osteoporosis Study has found that older women who drink cola every day have lower bone mineral density than those who drink it less than once a month. (12) This may be due to cola’s high levels of phosphorous, which may alter the dietary balance between calcium and phosphorous and thereby weaken bones.
- Get enough protein, but not too much. The body needs protein to build healthy bones. But as your body digests protein, it releases acids into the bloodstream, which the body neutralizes by drawing calcium from the bones. Following a high-protein diet for a few weeks probably won’t have much effect on bone strength. Doing it for a long time, though, could weaken bone. In the Nurses’ Health Study, for example, women who ate more than 95 grams of protein a day were 20 percent more likely to have broken a wrist over a 12-year period when compared to those who ate an average amount of protein (less than 68 grams a day). (13) But this area of research is still controversial, and findings have not been consistent. Some studies suggest increasing protein increases risk of fractures; others associate high-protein diets with increased bone mineral density. It is still unclear what level of protein intake provides the best protection against osteoporosis, and more research is needed.
- Get enough vitamin A, but not too much. Long associated with good vision, vitamin A has also been found to direct the process of borrowing and redepositing calcium in bone. However, too much preformed vitamin A (also known as retinol) can promote fractures. Choose a multivitamin supplement that has all or the majority of its vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene, a vitamin A precursor, since beta-carotene does not increase one’s fracture risk. Many multivitamin manufacturers have already reduced the amount of preformed vitamin A in their products.
Postmenopausal women may also want to talk to a health care provider about taking a medication that can strengthen bones. The estrogen in postmenopausal hormones can compensate for the drop in estrogen levels after menopause, helping to prevent—and perhaps even partially reverse—bone loss. However, hormone replacement therapy has fallen from grace as the mainstay for preventing osteoporosis after results from several studies showed that it increased the risk of breast cancer, stroke, and blood clots. (14) Other medications such as alendronate (Fosamax), risedronate (Actonel), calcitonin (Miacalcin), raloxifene (Evista), and parathyroid hormone (Fortéo) have been approved for the prevention or treatment of osteoporosis.
When most people in the United States think of calcium, they immediately think of milk. But should this be so? Milk is actually only one of many sources of calcium—dark leafy green vegetables and some types of legumes are among the other sources—and there are some important reasons why milk may not be the best source for everyone.
These reasons include the following:
Many people have some degree of lactose intolerance. For them, eating or drinking dairy products causes problems like cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. These symptoms can range from mild to severe. Certain groups are much more likely to have lactose intolerance. For example, 90 percent of Asians, 70 percent of blacks and Native Americans, and 50 percent of Hispanics are lactose intolerant, compared to only about 15 percent of people of Northern European descent.
One alternative for those who are lactose intolerant but who still enjoy consuming dairy products is to take a pill containing enzymes that digest milk sugar along with the dairy product, or to consume milk that has the lactase enzyme added to it.
High Saturated Fat Content
Many dairy products are high in saturated fats, and a high saturated fat intake is a risk factor for heart disease. And while it’s true that most dairy products are now available in fat-reduced or nonfat options, the saturated fat that’s removed from dairy products is inevitably consumed by someone, often in the form of premium ice cream, butter, or baked goods.
Strangely, it’s often the same people who purchase these higher fat products who also purchase the low-fat dairy products, so it’s not clear that they’re making great strides in cutting back on their saturated fat consumption.
Possible Increased Risk of Ovarian Cancer
High levels of galactose, a sugar released by the digestion of lactose in milk, have been studied as possibly damaging to the ovaries and leading to ovarian cancer. Although such associations have not been reported in all studies, there may be potential harm in consuming high amounts of lactose. A recent pooled analysis of 12 prospective cohort studies, which included more than 500,000 women, found that women with high intakes of lactose—equivalent to that found in 3 cups of milk per day—had a modestly higher risk of ovarian cancer, compared to women with the lowest lactose intakes. (15) The study did not find any association between overall milk or dairy product intake and ovarian cancer. Some researchers have hypothesized, however, that modern industrial milk production practices have changed milk’s hormone composition in ways that could increase the risk of ovarian and other hormone-related cancers. (16) More research is needed.
Probable Increased Risk of Prostate Cancer
A diet high in calcium has been implicated as a probable risk factor for prostate cancer. (17) In a Harvard study of male health professionals, men who drank two or more glasses of milk a day were almost twice as likely to develop advanced prostate cancer as those who didn’t drink milk at all. (18) The association appears to be with calcium itself, rather than with dairy products in general: A more recent analysis of the Harvard study participants found that men with the highest calcium intake—at least 2,000 milligrams a day—had nearly double the risk of developing fatal prostate cancer as those who had the lowest intake (less than 500 milligrams per day). (19)
Clearly, although more research is needed, we cannot be confident that high milk or calcium intake is safe.
Adequate, lifelong dietary calcium intake is necessary to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Consuming adequate calcium and vitamin D and performing regular, weight-bearing exercise are also important to build maximum bone density and strength. After age 30, these factors help slow bone loss, although they cannot completely prevent bone loss due to aging.
Milk and dairy products are a convenient source of calcium for many people. They are also a good source of protein and are fortified with vitamins D and A. At this time, however, the optimal intake of calcium is not clear, nor is the optimal source or sources of calcium. As noted earlier, the National Academy of Sciences currently recommends that people ages 19 to 50 consume 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, and that those age 50 or over get 1,200 milligrams per day. Reaching 1,200 milligrams per day would usually require drinking two to three glasses of milk per day—or taking calcium supplements—over and above an overall healthy diet.
However, these recommendations are based on very short-term studies, and are likely to be higher than what people really need. Currently, there’s no good evidence that consuming more than one serving of milk per day in addition to a reasonable diet (which typically provides about 300 milligrams of calcium per day from nondairy sources) will reduce fracture risk. Because of unresolved concerns about the risk of ovarian and prostate cancer, it may be prudent to avoid higher intakes of dairy products.
At moderate levels, though, consumption of calcium and dairy products has benefits beyond bone health, including possibly lowering the risk of high blood pressure and colon cancer. (20–25) While the blood pressure benefits appear fairly small, the protection against colon cancer seems somewhat larger, and most of the latter benefit comes from having just one or maybe two glasses of milk per day in addition to what we get from other foods in our diet. Getting more than this doesn’t seem to lower risk further.
For individuals who are unable to digest—or who dislike—dairy products and for those who simply prefer not to consume large amounts of such foods, other options are available. Calcium can also be found in dark green, leafy vegetables, such as kale and collard greens, as well as in dried beans and legumes.
Calcium is also found in spinach and chard, but these vegetables contain oxalic acid, which combines with the calcium to form calcium oxalate, a chemical salt that makes the calcium less available to the body. A variety of calcium-fortified foods, such as orange juice and soy milk, are now on the market.
Calcium can also be ingested as a supplement, and if you do go the supplement route, it’s best to choose one that includes some vitamin D. Research suggests that calcium-only supplements do not protect against fractures, and may in fact increase risk of fractures. (4) There’s also some emerging evidence that taking calcium-only supplements may possibly increase the risk of heart attacks—another reason to avoid calcium-only supplements. (26) Men may want to avoid calcium supplements because of questions about possible risks of prostate cancer; if men do take a calcium supplement, limiting supplement intake to 500 milligrams of calcium per day seems prudent.
Antacids contain calcium, but do not contain vitamin D. So if you choose antacids as a calcium source, you may want to consider taking a separate vitamin D supplement. Discuss your options with a health care provider.
Here is a list of foods that are good sources of calcium.
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