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

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?


How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.


Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.


What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]


low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line


  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

For more details read the article above.



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.