Calcium: Focus on food

Last updated: April 2011

About 60 percent of men and 80 percent of women don't get enough calcium from their diet. For years, the advice has been to make up the shortfall with supplements, but new research provides an argument for getting more from food.

The analysis, published online in August 2010 by the British Medical Journal, combined the results of 11 trials involving some 12,000 older people. Researchers concluded that treating 1,000 people with supplemental calcium for five years would prevent 26 fractures but also lead to an additional 14 heart attacks, 10 strokes, and 13 deaths.

However, the analysis didn't look at studies that used calcium with vitamin D, and some evidence suggests that the combination more effectively prevents fractures. And consuming healthy amounts of calcium, especially from food, might protect health in other ways, such as lowering blood pressure, helping to prevent breast and colon cancer, and easing premenstrual syndrome.

Altogether, the research provides an argument for getting most of your calcium from dietary sources. Aim for at least three daily servings of dairy or other calcium-rich foods. If you do opt for a calcium pill, consider one that also contains vitamin D. And look for products with the "USP verified" seal on the label, which indicates that they meet quality standards set by the nonprofit U.S. Pharmacopoeia.

Good dietary sources of calcium Amount (mg)
Yogurt: Plain, low-fat (8 oz.) 415
Sardines: With bones, canned (3 oz.) 325
Milk: Skim (8 oz.) 300
Tofu: Firm, made with calcium sulfate (½ cup) 205
Cheese: Cheddar, mozzarella (1 oz.) 185 to 205
Pink salmon: With bones, canned (3 oz.) 180
Greens, cooked: Kale, spinach, turnip greens (½ cup) 50 to 120
Beans, boiled: Great Northern, navy, white (½ cup) 60 to 80
Nuts: Almonds, Brazil (1 oz.) 45 to 70
Orange (1 medium) 60
Recommended daily intake
Men younger than 50 and premenopausal women: 1,000 mg.
Men 50 to 65: 1,200 mg.
Men older than 65 and postmenopausal women: 1,200 to 1,500 mg., depending on bone density.
Upper limit from food and supplements: 2,500 mg.

This article first appeared in the January 2010 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.

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