Should We Take Calcium Supplements?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Calcium Supplements, Exercise, Food and Health, Healthy Lifestyle

Clearing Up The Calcium Confusion

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

should we take calcium supplementsShould we take calcium supplements?  You have every right to be confused about calcium supplementation. There have been a lot of conflicting headlines in recent months.

It has seemed like a no-brainer for years that calcium supplementation could help post-menopausal women and men over 50 avoid the debilitating effects of osteoporosis.

After all:

  • >99% of adults fail to get the USDA recommended 2.5-3 servings/day of dairy products.
  • 67% of women ages 19-50 and 90% of women over 50 fail to meet the RDA recommendations for calcium intake from diet alone.
  • Men do a little better (but only because we consume more food). 40% of men ages 19-50 and 80% of men over 50 fail to meet the RDA recommendations for calcium intake from diet alone.
  • Inadequate calcium intake over a lifetime is considered a major risk factor for osteoporosis.
  • Osteoporosis is serious business. It doesn’t just cause bone fractures. It can result in chronic pain, disability, long term nursing home care, and even death.

It’s no wonder that some experts have predicted that supplementation with calcium and vitamin D could save over $1 billion per year in health care cost savings. It is also why health professionals have recommended calcium supplementation for years, especially for postmenopausal women and men over 50.

However, recent headlines have claimed that calcium supplementation doesn’t really increase bone density or prevent osteoporosis (more about that later). Other headlines have suggested that calcium supplementation is actually bad for you. It may increase your risk of heart disease.

That’s why the general public, and even many doctors, are confused.  Should we take calcium supplements?  Everyone wants to know the answer to two questions:

  • Do calcium supplements work?
  • Are calcium supplements safe?

I will start with the second question first.

Are Calcium Supplements Safe?

are calcium supplements safeI have discussed the issue of calcium supplements and heart disease risk in a previous issue of Health Tips From the Professor. Briefly, the initial studies suggesting that calcium supplementation might increase the risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease were good studies, but they were small, short-term studies.

The initial studies raised an important question, so the scientific community stepped up to the plate and conducted larger, longer term studies to test the hypothesis. Both of those studies concluded that calcium supplementation posed no heart health risks.

Now a third major study on the subject has just been published (Raffield et al, Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Disease, doi: 10.1016/j.numecd.2016.07.007). The study followed 6236 men and women ages 45-84 for an average of 10.3 years. The subjects were from four different race/ethnicity groups and came from 6 different locations in the United States. More importantly, there were 208 heart attacks and 641 diagnoses of cardiovascular disease during the study, so the sample size was large enough to accurately determine the relationship between calcium supplementation and heart disease.

The results were pretty straight forward:

  • The authors concluded: “[This study] does not support a substantial association of calcium supplement use with negative cardiovascular outcomes.” If you would like the plain-speak version of their conclusion, they were saying that they saw no increase in either heart attacks or overall cardiovascular disease in people taking calcium supplements.
  • If anything, they saw a slight decrease in heart attack risk in those taking calcium supplements, but this was not statistically significant.

In summary, the weight of evidence is pretty clear. Three major studies have now come to the same conclusion: Calcium supplementation does not increase the risk of either heart attacks or cardiovascular disease.

Of course, once information has been placed on the internet, it tends to stay there for a very long time – even if subsequent studies have proven it to be wrong. So the myth that calcium supplementation increases heart attack risk will probably be with us for a while.

So, should we take calcium supplements?  Let’s first investigate a little further.

 

Do Calcium Supplements Work?

do calcium supplements workAs I mention above, recent headlines have also suggested that calcium supplementation does not increase bone density, so it is unlikely to protect against osteoporosis. I analyzed the study behind those headlines in great detail in two previous issues of Health Tips From the Professor.

In Part 1 Calcium Supplements Prevent Bone Fractures  I pointed out the multiple weaknesses in the study that make it impossible to draw a meaningful conclusion from the data.

 

In Part 2 Preventing Osteoporosis  I discussed the conclusion that the study should have come to, namely: Adequate calcium intake is absolutely essential for strong bones, but calcium intake is only one component of a bone healthy lifestyle.

The bottom line is that calcium supplementation will be of little use if:

  • You aren’t getting adequate amounts of vitamin D and all of the other nutrients needed for bone formation from diet and supplementation.
  • You aren’t getting enough exercise to stimulate bone formation.
  • You are consuming bone dissolving foods or taking bone dissolving drugs.

Conversely, none of the other aspects of a bone healthy lifestyle matter if you aren’t getting enough calcium from diet and supplementation.

The bottom line is that you need to get adequate calcium and have a bone healthy lifestyle to build strong bones and prevent osteoporosis, and calcium supplementation is often essential to make sure you are getting adequate calcium.

 

Should We Take Calcium Supplements?

should we take calcium supplements nowShould we take calcium supplements?  If you are one of the millions of Americans who aren’t meeting the RDA guidelines for calcium from diet alone, the answer is an unqualified yes.  Calcium supplementation is safe, and it is cheap.  Osteoporosis is preventable, and it is not a disease to be trifled with.

However, you also need to be aware that calcium supplementation alone is unlikely to be effective unless you follow a bone healthy lifestyle of diet, exercise and appropriate supplementation to make sure you are getting all of the nutrients needed for bone formation.

Of course, it is always possible to get too much of a good thing. The RDA for calcium is 1,000 – 1,200 mg/day. The suggested upper limit (UL) for calcium is 2,000 – 3,000 mg/day.  I would aim closer to the RDA than the UL unless higher intakes are recommended by your health care professional.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • 80% of men and 90% percent of women over 50 do not get enough calcium from their diet.
  • Consequently, doctors have consistently recommended calcium supplementation to prevent osteoporosis, and 50% of men and 60% of women over 60 currently consume calcium supplements on a regular basis.
  • Some small, short term studies suggested that calcium supplementation might increase the risk of heart disease, and warnings about calcium supplementation have been widely circulated on the internet. This hypothesis has been evaluated by three larger, longer term studies that have all concluded that calcium supplementation does not increase heart disease risk.
  • A recent study claimed that calcium supplementation was ineffective at increasing bone density, and that report has also been widely circulated. However, there are multiple weaknesses in the study that make it impossible to draw a meaningful conclusion from the data.
  • If you are one of the millions of Americans who aren’t meeting the RDA guidelines for calcium from diet alone, you should consider calcium supplementation.  It is safe.  It is effective when combined with a bone healthy lifestyle of diet, exercise, and appropriate supplementation.  Finally, it is cheap. Osteoporosis is preventable, and it is not a disease to be trifled with.
  • Of course, it is always possible to get too much of a good thing. The RDA for calcium is 1,000 – 1,200 mg/day. The suggested upper limit (UL) for calcium is 2,000 – 3,000 mg/day. I would aim closer to the RDA than the UL unless higher intakes are recommended by your health care professional.

 

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 (6)

  • Jennifer

    |

    Calcium supplements were the wrong thing for me, I recently learned. I am hyperparathyroid, due to a tumor on one or more parathyroid glands. The calcium level in my blood had risen to 12.5 due to the malfunction of the parathyroid gland that regulates calcium in the bones, and more. I had osteoporosis—so all the more reason to take calcium? Wrong. For years, I faithfully took calcium, until this year. For years, doctors mused over my high blood calcium levels, above 10. However, due to thinning bones, every one recommended calcium supplements. Now that the tumor and malfunction is discovered, I halted all calcium and I’m preparing for surgery to remove the tumor(s) on my parathyroid gland(s), the only cure. One should not assume that thin bones are the only marker to take calcium.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Jennifer,
      You are correct in saying that calcium supplements won’t help if you are hyperparathyroid. However, I must wonder how your doctor’s missed that diagnosis. With thinning bones and high blood calcium levels, they should have tested you for hyperparathyroidism – not muse about it.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Jeanie Porter

    |

    Dr. Chaney, I would like additional information on where magnesium fits into the calcium/osteoporosis equation and in what ratio it should be included. Also, the same for strontium – how important is it for bone health and in what ratio?
    Thank you. Jeanie Porter

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Jeanie,
      You should certainly aim for RDA intake of magnesium (300-310 mg/day for women and 400-420 mg/day for men. I have seen recommendations for a 2:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium. What many people neglect to say is that holds only up to RDA levels of calcium (which would correspond to 400-500 mg/day of magnesium. It is also important to know that excess magnesium can cause diarrhea. If you are taking a magnesium supplement, you get one that is sustained release.
      Strontium is more complicated. There is a form, strontium ranelate, that is prescribed to help increase bone density in women with osteoporosis in Europe. However, it has not been approved for use in this country, and the strontium supplements used in this country are unrelated to strontium ranelate. Unfortunately, there has been very little research on strontium supplements in this country. In short, strontium supplements may help increase bone density, but we have no idea what kind or how much would be beneficial.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Ruth wood

    |

    Hello Dr. Chaney.
    I’m interested in information regarding the effect of calcium supplementation on development of kidney stones.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Ruth,
      Some forms of kidney stones do contain calcium, but if your calcium intake is less than 4,000 mg/day, the kidney stones are probably not caused by excess calcium. Kidney stones are more likely caused by inadequate water intake, too little magnesium, too little B6, too much vitamin D, or hormone imbalances. If you are getting adequate water, magnesium, and B vitamins and still suffer from recurrent kidney stones, you should probably get a full workup by your physician.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, 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.

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