Do Calcium Supplements Prevent Bone Fractures? – Part1

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Health Current Events, Supplements and Health, Vitamins and Health

Why The Recent Headlines May Be Misleading

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


osteoporosisDoes calcium help prevent bone fractures?  Osteoporosis is a debilitating and potentially deadly disease associated with aging. It affects 54 million Americans. It can cause debilitating back pain and bone fractures. 50% of women and 25% of men over 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Hip fractures in the elderly due to osteoporosis are often a death sentence.

For that reason, the RDA for calcium has been set at 1,000 to 1,200 mg/day to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, and calcium supplements are often recommended to reach that target.However, recent headlines are proclaiming that calcium supplements do not actually prevent bone fractures and might increase your risk of a heart attack. Are the RDA recommendations wrong? Should you throw out your calcium supplements?

In this article I will review the article behind the study and help you put it into perspective. After all, you don’t really want to know whether calcium supplementation is beneficial for the average adult. You want to know whether it will be beneficial for you.

Let me start by putting the heart attack myth to rest. I have covered this in detail in a previous “Health Tips From The Professor” article, Calcium Supplements Increase Heart Attack Risk . If you don’t want to go to the trouble of reading my previous article, the short version is that:

  • Most of the studies suggesting an increased risk of heart attacks are flawed.
  • A very large study (74,000 women followed for 24 years) has shown fairly convincingly that calcium supplements do not increase heart attack risk. If anything, they decrease heart attack risk.

Unfortunately, like most other nutrition myths, this one is still being repeated – even after it has been refuted by subsequent studies.

Bone Metabolism and Osteoporosis

bone metabolism osteoporosisBefore you can truly understand osteoporosis and how to prevent it, you need to know a bit about bone metabolism. We tend to think of our bones as solid and unchanging, much like the steel girders in an office building. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our bones are dynamic organs that are in a constant change throughout our lives.

Cells called osteoclasts and osteoblasts constantly break down old bone (a process called resorption) and replace it with new bone (a process called accretion). Without this constant renewal process our bones would quickly become old and brittle (I’ll discuss more about this next week when I talk about the side effects of drugs commonly used to increase bone density).

When we are young the bone building process exceeds bone resorption and our bones grow in size and in density. During most of our adult years, bone resorption and accretion are in balance so our bone density stays constant. However, as we age bone the bone building process (accretion) slows down and we start to lose bone density. Eventually our bones look like Swiss cheese and break very easily. This is called osteoporosis.

We should also think of our bones as calcium reservoirs.  We need calcium in our bloodstream 24 hours a day for our muscles, brain, and nerves to function properly, but we only get calcium in our diet at discrete intervals. Consequently, when we eat our body tries to store as much calcium as possible in our bones. Between meals, we break down bone material so that we can release the calcium into our bloodstream that our muscle, brain & nerves need to function.

If we lead a “bone healthy” lifestyle, all of this works perfectly. We build strong bones during our growing years, maintain healthy bones during our adult years, and only lose bone density slowly as we age – maybe never experiencing osteoporosis. We always accumulate enough calcium in our bones during meals to provide for the rest of our body between meals.

What is a “bone healthy” lifestyle, you might ask. Because calcium is a major component of bone, the medical and nutrition communities have long focused on calcium as a “magic bullet” that can assure bone health. Once the importance of vitamin D was understood, it was added to the equation. For years we have been told that if we just get enough calcium and vitamin D in our diets, we would build strong bones when we were young, maintain bone density most of our adult years, and lose bone density as slowly as possible as we age.It is this paradigm that the current study challenges.

Do Calcium Supplements Prevent Bone Fractures?

prevent bone fracturesLet’s start by looking at the study behind the headlines (Tai et al, British Medical Journal, BMJ/2015; 351:h4183 doi: 10.1136/bmj.h4183). This was a meta-analysis that included 15 studies (1533 participants) looking at dietary sources of calcium and 51 studies (12,257 participants) looking at calcium supplementation in women.

The results of the meta-analysis were thought provoking, but do not exactly support the headlines you have been reading. For example:

The headlines say “Calcium Supplements Do Not Prevent Broken Bones”.

  • This study did not actually look at calcium supplementation and the risk of bone fractures. That was a previous study (Boland et al, BMJ 2015, 351:h4580) by the same authors.
  • This study showed that calcium supplementation increased bone density by 0.7-1.8%, which the authors concluded was sufficient to reduce fracture risk by about 5-10%. That’s a disappointingly small effect, but it is not zero – as the headlines suggested.

The headlines say “It’s better to get your calcium from food than from supplements”.

  • This study showed that it did not matter whether the calcium came from food or from supplements. The increase in bone density was identical.

Garbage-In, Garbage-Out

garbageMeta-analyses such as this one can be very strong, but they can also suffer from the “garbage-in, garbage-out” phenomenon. In short, if most of the studies that went into the meta-analysis were poorly designed, the conclusions of the meta-analysis will be unreliable.

The problem is that many of the individual studies were conducted 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago when our knowledge of bone metabolism was incomplete.

  • Thirty or 40 years ago it was “state of the art” to just use a calcium supplement. Then we learned that adequate vitamin D was essential for efficient calcium utilization.
  • Most of the studies included in this meta-analysis looked at calcium supplementation without vitamin D. Only 13 of the studies (25%) included vitamin D.
  • Ten or 20 years ago it was “state of the art” to just use a calcium supplement with vitamin D. Then we learned that the blood level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D (the active form of vitamin D in the bloodstream) did not necessarily reflect vitamin D intake from the diet. In today’s world a study in which the 25-hydroxy vitamin D level is not measured should be considered sub-standard.
  • Only 18 (35%) of the studies measured baseline 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels.
  • If dietary calcium intake at baseline is already adequate, it is illogical to expect additional calcium to significantly increase bone density.
  • The baseline calcium intake was <800 mg/day (clearly inadequate) in only 26 (51%) of the studies. Baseline calcium intake was either not determined in the other studies or was already in the adequate range prior to supplementation.
  • In the future, we will probably want to include exercise as a component in the study (more about that next week). None of the studies included exercise as a component

In short, by today’s standards many, if not most, of the studies included in the meta-analysis had an inadequate design.

If I had designed the meta-analysis, I would have been a lot more restrictive in the studies I included.

  • I would have started by including only studies in which the baseline intake of calcium was <800 mg/day. If you want to critically evaluate whether calcium supplementation has a beneficial effect, you need to start with people who have an inadequate dietary intake of calcium. If their diets are already calcium sufficient, supplementation is unlikely to have any benefit.
  • At the very least I would only include studies that used calcium supplements containing 400-800 IU of vitamin D as well. In fact, based on the latest data, I would make sure that the calcium supplement I used also contained adequate levels of magnesium, vitamin K, zinc, copper and manganese. All of those have been shown to be important for bone formation and we cannot assume they are present at sufficient levels in their diet (more about that next week).
  • I would only include studies that measured blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D at baseline and following supplementation with vitamin D so that we knew that the 25-hydroxy vitamin D level was sufficient to support optimal calcium utilization.
  • Finally, I would only include studies that specifically measured the effect of exercise on calcium utilization or included exercise as an integral part of their study.

The number of studies included in the meta-analysis would be much less, but they would all be high quality studies.

Finally, the authors also noted that a number of studies in the supplement group showed significantly greater (2.5 – 5.0%) increase in bone density. They dismissed them as outliers. I would have preferred a closer look at those studies to see if there was anything about the population group or study design that might explain the greater bone density increase in those studies.

Apples and Oranges

apples orangesBecause the authors included a wide variety of clinical studies, they were able to state that “Increases in bone mineral density were similar in trials of calcium monotherapy [calcium by itself] versus co-administered calcium and vitamin D…and in trials where baseline dietary calcium intake was <800 [clearly insufficient] versus >800 [probably sufficient] mg/day.” This could be considered a strength of their meta-analysis, but they are only valid comparisons if other important features of the studies being compared were uniform – i.e. they were comparing apples to apples.

But what if they were comparing apples and oranges?

For example, we know that vitamin D is required for efficient calcium utilization. When the authors compared studies having a baseline calcium intake of <800 mg/day with studies having a baseline calcium intake of >800 mg/day, they did not even check to see whether use of vitamin D was evenly distributed between the two groups. If most of the studies with a baseline calcium intake of <800 mg/day did not include vitamin D with their calcium supplements, the authors would be comparing apples and oranges. The comparison would be invalid.

Similarly, we also know that if calcium intake at baseline is adequate, adding more calcium is unlikely to increase bone density significantly. When the authors compared studies with and without vitamin D, they did not even check to see whether baseline calcium intake was evenly distributed between the two groups. If the participants in most of the studies utilizing supplements providing both calcium and vitamin D were already consuming sufficient calcium at baseline, they would be comparing apples to oranges. Again, the comparison would be invalid.

The authors of the meta-analysis simply did not provide the detail needed to determine whether their comparisons were apples to apples or apples to oranges. Thus, what seemed to be a strength of their study is actually a major weakness.


The Bottom Line


  • A recent study has reported that the RDA recommendation of 1,000 – 1,200 mg/day of calcium for people over 50 provides only a minimal increase in bone density (0.7-1.8%) over the first year or two. This translates into a very small (5-10%) decrease in risk of bone fractures. It did not matter whether the calcium came from dietary sources or from supplementation. The authors concluded that adding extra calcium to the diet, whether from food or supplements, was not a very efficient way to increase bone density and prevent fractures.
  • This study suffers from some serious flaws. It is a meta-analysis of previous clinical trials looking at the effects of calcium on bone density. Meta-analyses can be very strong studies because they average the effects of many individual studies. However, meta-analyses can also suffer from the “garbage-in, garbage-out” phenomenon. Simply put, the quality of the meta-analysis is only as good as the studies that go into it. In this case the meta-analysis included many clinical studies that were done 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years ago. Based on what we now know about bone metabolism, the design of many of those early studies was clearly inadequate (details are given in the article).


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (1)

  • Robert D. Munson


    Thank you for pointing out why the results of poorly run research results should not be considered valid, and the difference between well designed and poorly designed research studies. I appreciate you “Health Tips”!!!!


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Latest Article

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

Posted October 16, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do High Protein Diets Reduce Fat And Preserve Muscle?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy Diet food group, proteins, include meat (chicken or turkAre high protein diets your secret to healthy weight loss? There are lots of diets out there – high fat, low fat, Paleolithic, blood type, exotic juices, magic pills and potions. But recently, high protein diets are getting a lot of press. The word is that they preserve muscle mass and preferentially decrease fat mass.

If high protein diets actually did that, it would be huge because:

  • It’s the fat – not the pounds – that causes most of the health problems.
  • Muscle burns more calories than fat, so preserving muscle mass helps keep your metabolic rate high without dangerous herbs or stimulants – and keeping your metabolic rate high helps prevent both the plateau and yo-yo (weight regain) characteristic of so many diets.
  • When you lose fat and retain muscle you are reshaping your body – and that’s why most people are dieting to begin with.

So let’s look more carefully at the recent study that has been generating all the headlines (Pasiakos et al, The FASEB Journal, 27: 3837-3847, 2013).

The Study Design:

This was a randomized control study with 39 young (21), healthy and fit men and women who were only borderline overweight (BMI = 25). These volunteers were put on a 21 day weight loss program in which calories were reduced by 30% and exercise was increased by 10%. They were divided into 3 groups:

  • One group was assigned a diet containing the RDA for protein (about 14% of calories in this study design).
  • The second group’s diet contained 2X the RDA for protein (28% of calories)
  • The third group’s diet contained 3X the RDA for protein (42% of calories)

In the RDA protein group carbohydrate was 56% of calories, and fat was 30% of calories. In the other two groups the carbohydrate and fat content of the diets was decreased proportionally.

Feet_On_ScaleWhat Did The Study Show?

  • Weight loss (7 pounds in 21 days) was the same on all 3 diets.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused almost 2X more fat loss (5 pounds versus 2.8 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • The high protein (28% and 42%) diets caused 2X less muscle loss (2.1 pounds versus 4.2 pounds) than the diet supplying the RDA amount of protein.
  • In case you didn’t notice, there was no difference in overall results between the 28% (2X the RDA) and 42% (3X the RDA) diets.

Pros And Cons Of The Study:

  • The con is fairly obvious. The participants in this study were all young, healthy and were not seriously overweight. If this were the only study of this type one might seriously question whether the results were applicable to middle aged, overweight coach potatoes. However, there have been several other studies with older, more overweight volunteers that have come to the same conclusion – namely that high protein diets preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss.
  • The value of this study is that it defines for the first time the upper limit for how much protein is required to preserve muscle mass in a weight loss regimen. 28% of calories is sufficient, and there appear to be no benefit from increasing protein further. I would add the caveat that there are studies suggesting that protein requirements for preserving muscle mass may be greater in adults 50 and older.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Forget the high fat diets, low fat diets, pills and potions. High protein diets (~2X the RDA or 28% of calories) do appear to be the safest, most effective way to preserve muscle mass and enhance fat loss in a weight loss regimen.

2)     That’s not a lot of protein, by the way. The average American consumes almost 2X the RDA for protein on a daily basis. However, it is significantly more protein than the average American consumes when they are trying to lose weight. Salads and carrot sticks are great diet foods, but they don’t contain much protein.

3)     Higher protein intake does not appear to offer any additional benefit – at least in young adults.

4)     Not all high protein diets are created equal. What some people call high protein diets are laden with saturated fats or devoid of carbohydrate. The diet in this study, which is what I recommend, had 43% healthy carbohydrates and 30% healthy fats.

5)    These diets were designed to give 7 pounds of weight loss in 21 days – which is what the experts recommend. There are diets out there promising faster weight loss but they severely restrict calories and/or rely heavily on stimulants, they do not preserve muscle mass, and they often are not safe. In addition they are usually temporary.  I do not recommend them.

6)    This level of protein intake is safe for almost everyone. The major exception would be people with kidney disease, who should always check with their doctor before increasing protein intake. The only other caveat is that protein metabolism creates a lot of nitrogenous waste, so you should drink plenty of water to flush that waste out of your system. But, water is always a good idea.

7)     The high protein diets minimized, but did not completely prevent, muscle loss. Other studies suggest that adding the amino acid leucine to a high protein diet can give 100% retention of muscle mass in a weight loss regimen – but that’s another story for another day.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.