Calcium and Breast Cancer Prevention

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Calcium and Breast Cancer, Supplements and Health, Vitamins and Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


calcium and breast cancerIs there a connection between calcium and breast cancer prevention?  There has been lots of confusion about calcium supplements lately. Just a few years ago most health professionals were recommending calcium supplementation for women to prevent osteoporosis. Now that recommendation has become controversial. That’s because some studies have suggested that increasing calcium intake doesn’t actually prevent osteoporosis. Other studies have suggested that calcium supplementation may actually cause heart disease.

As if all this wasn’t confusing enough, the latest headlines are claiming that increased calcium intake will reduce breast cancer risk. What are we to believe about the value of calcium for our health? Should we take that calcium supplement we threw away out of the trash can and start using it again?

I have previously evaluated the studies behind the previous headlines and debunked the headlines. For example, I reported that previous studies suggesting that calcium supplementation might increase heart attack risk were followed by a much larger, better designed study showing that, if anything, calcium supplementation actually decreases heart attack risk in Do Calcium Supplements Increase Heart Attack Risk?. I also reported that the study claiming calcium supplements did not prevent osteoporosis was fatally flawed in Do Calcium Supplements Prevent Bone Fractures?.

Now it is time to evaluate the study behind the latest calcium headline. Is this headline myth or is it true?  What is the connection between calcium and breast cancer.


Calcium and Breast Cancer Risk Reduction

calcium reduces breast cancer riskThis study (Hidayat et al, British Journal of Nutrition, 116: 158-166, 2016) was a meta-analysis of 11 previous clinical studies published between 2002 and 2013 with a total of 872,895 women subjects which measured calcium intake and breast cancer. Follow up ranged from 7 to 25 years in these studies, during which time 26,606 of the women developed breast cancer.

Dietary plus supplemental calcium intake was determined at the beginning of each study using either a 24-hour diet recall or a food frequency questionnaire. Calcium intakes ranged from 203 mg/day to 1,750 mg/day.

In short this was a very large and well done study. Because of the large number of subjects and the large number of cancer cases, this study had the sensitivity to detect even small effects of calcium on breast cancer risk – something that was not possible in previous studies. In addition, the investigators were able to conduct a dose-response evaluation of the effect of calcium and breast cancer risk reduction. This was also had not been possible in previous studies.

When the women with the highest calcium intakes were compared to the women with the lowest calcium intakes:

  • Calcium reduced breast cancer risk by 8%.
  • The effect was much larger for premenopausal women than postmenopausal women:
  • Calcium reduced breast cancer risk by 25% in premenopausal women.
  • Calcium reduced breast cancer risk by 6% in postmenopausal women.
  • The dose response effect was fairly linear over the entire dose range with a 2% decreased risk of breast cancer for every 300 mg/day increase in calcium intake.


What Does This Study Mean For You?

As I said in the beginning, when you read the headlines proclaiming that increasing your calcium intake could decrease your breast cancer risk, you probably had two questions:

Is it true?  The answer appears to be yes. This was a very large, very well done study and it showed there is a connection between calcium and breast cancer risk reduction. It was capable of detecting even small effects of calcium on breast cancer risk – something that previous studies simply could not do.

Does it matter?  Here the answer is more complicated. If you’re a postmenopausal woman, increased calcium intake only decreases your risk of breast cancer by 6%.  If you are a premenopausal woman, increased calcium intake decreases your risk of breast cancer by a more robust 25%. However, in both cases you should think of calcium as only one component of a holistic approach to reducing breast cancer risk – something I’ll discuss in more detail below.

Now that you know the answer to those two questions you probably have a third question:

How much calcium do I need?   That’s pretty simple. The calcium DV for adults is 1,000 mg/day, increasing to 1,200 mg/day for women over 50.

How Can You Reduce Breast Cancer Risk?

In a previous article Preventing Osteoporosis,  I reported that while calcium supplementation alone had only a very modest effect on reducing osteoporosis risk, it played an important role as part of a holistic bone-healthy lifestyle. The role of calcium in reducing breast cancer risk is no different.

Most experts estimate that between 30 and 60% of breast cancer cases could be prevented by diet and lifestyle changes. In addition to calcium, both the Mayo Clinic  and the American Cancer Society make the following recommendations for reducing breast cancer risk:

  • calcium supplementsLimit or avoid hormone therapy. This is the single most important step you can take to reduce breast cancer risk.
  • Eat a plant-based diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Use fats in moderation and choose healthy fats such as olive oil and omega-3 fats. Limit the amounts of red meat and processed meats.
  • Control your weight.
  • Be physically active.
  • Don’t smoke
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Avoid exposure to radiation and environmental pollution.
  • Breast feed.

Where Should You Get Your Calcium?

Many experts recommend that you get your calcium only from food. Is that the best advice?  I always like to start with food as the source of essential nutrients, but in the case of calcium that usually isn’t sufficient. Here are some facts to ponder:

  • Plain, nonfat yoghurt is the calcium champion, with an 8 ounce serving supplying 42% of the DV (the calcium DV = 1,000 mg/day). However, most yoghurt cups in the market these days are 4 ounces or less.
  • Milk and a few cheeses supply around 30% of the DV. However, many people can’t or don’t consume the 3 or more servings needed to reach the DV.
  • Green leafy vegetables are often mentioned as another good food source. However, a serving of them only provides around 10% of the DV, and many leafy greens contain oxalates which decrease calcium absorption.
  • Beyond that,  most food sources of calcium supply only 1-8% of the DV for calcium. If you don’t drink lots of milk, you need to be a dietitian with an advanced degree to figure out how to get enough calcium from foods alone.
  • If that isn’t bad enough, many foods contain substances that interfere with calcium absorption. In addition to the oxalates in leafy greens, these substances include phytates from whole grains, phosphate from sodas, and saturated fat from red meats.


Experts often also recommend getting calcium from calcium fortified foods such as calcium fortified orange juice. That can help you reach the recommended calcium intake, but in my opinion calcium-fortified foods are likely to be more expensive and no better than regular foods plus a calcium supplement.

I recommend getting as much calcium as possible from food and adding a calcium supplement for the rest. Here are my tips on calcium supplementation:

  • If you do use a calcium supplement, make sure it is complete. Don’t just settle for calcium and vitamin D. At the very least you will want your supplement to contain magnesium and vitamin K. I personally recommend that it also contain zinc, copper, and manganese as well.
  • Your calcium supplement will be best utilized if taken between meals.
  • Your calcium supplement will be best utilized if you don’t take more than 500 mg at a time.
  • In most cases there is no need for more than the DV of calcium.

Let’s review the connection between calcium and breast cancer risk reduction.


The Bottom Line

  • A recent study has shown that increasing calcium intake reduces the risk of breast cancer. The effect of calcium intake on breast cancer risk was much greater for premenopausal women (25% risk reduction) than it was for postmenopausal women (6% risk reduction).
  • While the effect of calcium alone on breast cancer risk was relatively modest,  it is likely to be an important component of a holistic approach for reducing breast cancer risk.  Additional recommendations of the Mayo Clinic and American Cancer Society for reducing breast cancer risk are contained in the article above.
  • While many experts recommend getting your calcium from food alone, a careful analysis of food sources of calcium clearly shows how difficult that is for most people.
  • Calcium supplements are a safe and effective way to make sure you are getting the calcium you need. In the article above, I describe the optimal design of a calcium supplement and how to take a calcium supplement for optimal utilization.


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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Latest Article

The Truth About Vitamin D

Posted December 11, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Does Vitamin D Reduce Risk Of Heart Disease & Cancer?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


the truth about vitamin dYou have every right to be confused. One day you are told that vitamin D reduces your risk of heart disease and cancer. The next day you are told vitamin D makes has no effect on those diseases. You are told vitamin D is a waste of money. What should you believe?  What is the truth about vitamin D?

In mid-November a major clinical study called VITAL was published. It examined the effect of vitamin D and omega-3s on heart disease and cancer risk. Last week I wrote about the omega-3 portion of the study. This week I will cover the vitamin D portion of the study.

Once again, if you rely on the media for your information on supplementation, you are probably confused. Headlines ranged from “Vitamin D Is Ineffective For Preventing Cancer And Heart Disease to “Vitamin D Lowers Odds Of Cancer Death.” What is the truth?

The problem is that reporters aren’t scientists. They don’t know how to interpret clinical studies. What they report is filtered through their personal biases. That is why I take the time to carefully evaluate the clinical studies, so I can provide you with accurate information. Let me sort through the dueling headlines and give you the truth about vitamin D, cancer, and heart disease.

How Was The Study Designed?

the truth about vitamin d studyThe VITAL study (JE Manson et al, New England Journal of Medicine, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1811403) enrolled 25,871 healthy adults (average age = 67) in the United States. The study participants were 50% female, 50% male, and 20% African American. None of the participants had preexisting cancer or heart disease. The characteristics of the study group were typical of the American population at that age, namely:

  • The average BMI was 28, which means that most of the participants were significantly overweight.
  • 7% of them had diabetes.

Study participants were given questionnaires on enrollment to assess clinical and lifestyle factors including dietary intake. Blood samples were taken from about 65% of the participants to determine 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels (a measure of vitamin D status) at baseline and at the end of the first year. The participants were given either 2,000 IU of vitamin D/day or a placebo and followed for an average of 5.3 years.

There were two important characteristics of the participants in this study that may have influenced the outcome.

  • The average 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of participants at the beginning of the study was 31 ng/ml (78 nmol/L). The NIH considers 20-50 ng/ml (50-125 nmol/L) to be the optimal level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D for most physiological functions. This means that study participants started in the middle of the optimal range with respect to vitamin D status.

[Note: The NIH defines the 20-50 ng/ml range as “adequate.”  However, I know many of my readers like to aim beyond adequate to reach what they consider to be “optimal.”  In the case of vitamin D, that might not be a good idea. The NIH considers anything above 50 ng/ml as associated “with potentially adverse effects.”  For that reason, I will refer to the 20-50 ng/ml range as optimal for this article. I wouldn’t want to encourage my readers to be aiming for above 50 ng/ml.]

  • Only 12.7% of participants had 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels below 20 ng/ml, which the NIH considers to be inadequate. The results with this group were not statistically different from the study participants with optimal vitamin D status, but it is not clear that there were enough people in this subgroup for a statistically valid comparison with participants starting with an optimal vitamin D status.
  • At the end of the first year, 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in the treatment group increased to 42 ng/ml (105 nmol/L), which is near the upper end of the optimal range. Thus, for most of the participants, the study was evaluating whether there was a benefit of increasing vitamin D status from the middle to the upper end of the optimal range.
  • The study allowed subjects to continue taking supplements that contained up to 800 IU of vitamin D. While the authors tried to correct for this statistically, it is a confounding variable.

Does Vitamin D Reduce The Risk Of Cancer?


the truth about vitamin d and cancerYou may remember from last week that omega-3s were more effective for reducing heart disease risk than for reducing cancer risk. What is the truth about vitamin D and cancer risk?   The results are reversed for vitamin D, so I will discuss cancer first.

The study reported that vitamin D supplementation did not reduce a diagnosis of invasive cancer of any type, breast cancer, prostate cancer, or colon cancer during the 5.3-year time-period of this study. This was the result that was reported in the abstract and was what lazy journalists, who never read past the abstract, reported.

However, the rest of the study was more positive. For example, occurrence of invasive cancer of any type was reduced by:

  • 23% in African-Americans.
  • 24% in patients with a healthy body weight.

Several previous studies have suggested that vitamin D may be more effective at preventing cancer in people with a healthy body weight, but the mechanism of this effect is currently unknown.

Most previous studies have not included enough African-Americans to determine whether they respond more favorably to vitamin D supplementation. However, African-Americans have a higher risk of cancer, so this finding deserves follow-up.

In addition, when the study looked at deaths from cancer, the results were very positive. For example:

  • Cancer deaths during the 5.3-year study period were reduced by 17%.
  • The longer vitamin D supplementation was continued the more effective it became at reducing cancer deaths. For example,
  • When the authors excluded cancer deaths occurring during the first year of supplementation, vitamin D reduced cancer deaths by 21%.
  • When the authors excluded cancer deaths occurring during the first two years of supplementation, vitamin D reduced cancer deaths by 25%.

Finally, no side effects were noted in the vitamin D group.


Does Vitamin D Reduce The Risk Of Heart Disease?


the truth about vitamin d and heart diseaseThe VITAL study also looked at the effect of vitamin D on heart disease risk. What is the truth about vitamin D and heart disease?  The results from this study were uniformly negative. There was no effect of vitamin D supplementation on all major cardiovascular events combined, heart attack, stroke, or death from heart disease. Does that mean vitamin D has no role in reducing heart disease risk? That’s not clear.

The authors had a thought-provoking explanation for why the results were negative for heart disease, but positive for cancer. Remember that the participants in this trial started with a 25-hydroxyvitamin D level of 31 ng/ml and increased it to at least 42 ng/ml with vitamin D supplementation.

The authors stated that previous studies have suggested the 25-hydroxyvitamin D level associated with the lowest risk for heart disease is between 20 and 25 ng/ml. If that is true, most of the participants in this trial were already in the lowest possible risk for heart disease with respect to vitamin D status before the study even started. There would be no reason to expect additional vitamin D to further reduce their risk of heart disease.

In contrast, the authors said that previous studies suggest the 25-hydroxyvitamin D level associated with the lowest risk of cancer deaths is above 30 ng/ml. If that is true, it would explain why vitamin D supplementation in this study was effective at reducing cancer deaths.

However, previous placebo-controlled clinical studies have also been inconclusive with respect to vitamin D and heart disease. My recommendation would be to think of adequate vitamin D status as part of a holistic approach to reducing heart disease – one that includes a heart-healthy diet and a heart-healthy lifestyle – rather than a “magic bullet” that decreases heart disease risk by itself.

As for heart-healthy diets, I discuss the pros and cons of various diets in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths.”  As I discuss in my book, the weight of scientific evidence supports primarily plant-based diets that include omega-3s as heart healthy. As an example, the Mediterranean diet is primarily plant-based and is rich in healthy oils like olive oil and omega-3s. It is associated with reduced risk of both heart disease and cancer.


What Is The Truth About Vitamin D?


the truth about vitamin d signThere is a lot of confusion around the question of whether vitamin D reduces the risk of cancer. This study strengthened previous observation suggesting that vitamin D supplementation decreases cancer deaths. However, it is also consistent with previous studies that have failed to find an effect of vitamin D on cancer development. How can we understand this apparent discrepancy? The authors provided a logical explanation. They pointed out that:

  • Cancer development takes 20-30 years while this clinical study lasted only 5.3 years. That means that vitamin D supplementation only occurred at the tail end of the cancer development process. In fact, the cancer was already there in most of the patients in the study who developed cancer. It just had not been diagnosed yet. In the words of the authors: “Given the long latency for cancer development, extended follow-up is necessary to fully ascertain potential effects [of vitamin D supplementation].”
  • In contrast, none of the patients had been diagnosed with cancer when they entered the trial. That means that the patients were diagnosed with cancer during the 5.3-year study period. They were receiving extra vitamin D during the entire period of cancer treatment. Thus, the effect of vitamin D on reducing cancer deaths was easier to detect.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

the truth about vitamin d questionsVitamin D Is Likely To Decrease Your Risk Of Dying From Cancer: When you combine the results of this study with what we already know about vitamin D and cancer, the results are clear. Vitamin D appears to reduce your risk of dying from cancer. More importantly, the longer you have been supplementing with vitamin D, the greater your risk reduction is likely to be.

Vitamin D May Decrease Your Risk Of Developing Cancer: Association studies suggest that optimal vitamin D status is associated with decreased cancer risk, especially colon cancer risk. However, the long time for cancer development means that we may never be able to prove this effect through double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials.

Holistic Is Best: When you combine the VITAL study results with what we already know about vitamin D and heart disease, it appears that supplementing with vitamin D is unlikely to reduce your risk of developing heart disease unless you are vitamin D deficient. However, a holistic approach that starts with a healthy, primarily plant-based diet and makes sure your vitamin D status is adequate is likely to be effective.

The same is likely true for cancer. While the latest study suggests that vitamin D supplementation reduces your risk of dying from cancer, those vitamin D supplements are likely to be even more effective if you also adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle.

How Much Vitamin D Do You Need? The optimal dose of vitamin D is likely to be different for each of us. One of the things we have learned in recent years is that there are significant differences in the efficiency with which we convert vitamin D from diet and/or sun exposure into the active form of vitamin D in our cells. Fortunately, the blood test for 25-hydroxyvitamin D is readily available and is widely considered to be an excellent measure of our vitamin D status.

I recommend that you have your blood level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D tested on an annual basis. Based on the best currently available data, I recommend you aim for >20 ng/ml (50 nmol/L) if you wish to minimize your risk of heart disease and >30 ng/ml (75 nmol/L) if you wish to minimize your risk of cancer. If you can achieve those levels through diet and a multivitamin supplement, that is great. If not, I would recommend adding a vitamin D supplement until those levels are achieved.

Finally, you shouldn’t think of vitamin D as a magic bullet. If you are a couch potato and eat sodas and junk food, don’t expect vitamin D to protect you from cancer and heart disease. You should think of maintaining adequate 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels as just one component of a holistic approach to healthy, disease-free living.


The Bottom Line


There is a lot of confusion around the question of whether vitamin D reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease. A major clinical study has just been published that sheds light on these important questions. It reported:

  • Vitamin D did not decrease the risk of developing cancer during the 5.3-year study duration. The authors pointed out that cancer takes 20-30 years to develop, which means their study was probably too short to detect an effect of vitamin D on the risk of developing cancer.
  • Vitamin D did decrease the risk of dying from cancer, and the longer people were supplementing with vitamin D the bigger the protective effect of vitamin D was.
  • Vitamin D did not decrease the risk of heart disease. However, most study participants had a level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D that was optimal for reducing the risk of heart disease at the beginning of the study. There was no reason to expect that extra vitamin D would provide additional benefit.
  • With respect to both cancer and heart disease the best advice is to:
    • Get your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels tested on an annual basis and supplement, if necessary, to keep your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in what the NIH considers to be an adequate range (20-50 ng/ml).
    • We do not have good dose response data for the beneficial effects of vitamin D on heart disease and cancer. However, according to this article, previous studies suggest you may want to am for 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels above 20 ng/ml to reduce the risk of heart disease and above 30 ng/ml to reduce your risk of cancer.
    • Consider vitamin D as just one component of a holistic approach to healthy, disease-free living.

For more details about the interpretation of these studies and what they mean for you, 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.