Calcium Supplementation – Benefit vs Risk – A Checklist for You

Calcium supplements are more widely used in the world than any other dietary supplement including all minerals, vitamins, and herbal, marine, animal or apiary products. For example, the National Centre for Health Statistics shows that in USA 6 out of 10 women over 60 years of age take a calcium supplement. It is the most abundant mineral in the body and essential to a wide range of critical body functions, as well as its known role in bone structure. Yet there are widely published results from the medical world warning of dangers in calcium supplementation (particularly in the field of heart and stroke attack probabilities) and advising to obtain all calcium from food and avoid calcium supplements. This has led to widely differing views from medical professionals as to the advisability or otherwise of taking calcium supplements. Which in turn has led to confusion in the mind of many consumers, as to just what they personally should do? We do not want to add to that confusion but feel a checklist of the key factors would help consumers make a more informed decision as to what action to take to maximise their long-term health and longevity.

To start the checklist you first need to establish your current daily intake of calcium from food. Obviously you cannot do this in highly accurate detail but all we are looking for is placing your intake in broad bands.

  • Under 500 mg elemental calcium per day
  • 500-1,000 mg elemental calcium per day
  • Over 1,000 mg elemental calcium per day

To make this calculation you need to write down a list of the foods you would eat and their approximate amounts on an average day. Then from the Internet obtain a Calcium Food Chart, there are many available and calculate your daily calcium intake.

This should place you in one of the board bands shown above.

Next we need to look how this intake measures up against your requirement. Charts on requirements based on age and sex are also readily available on the Internet. You need to print one of these off.

From this chart you will see that young children on a normal diet are likely to be getting adequate calcium. Teenage children may need checking but given they have normal appetite/intake and reasonable diet makeup they should be fine as well.

When we come to the adult / middle age stage, if we are in the 1,000 mg per day plus band for our intake there is no real worry for either sex.

However if you are in the 500-1,000 mg per day band we have to add some more factors to our checklist.

  • Family History
  • Heart Health

First your Family History. This gives your likely genetic effect on any development of weak bones or osteoporosis. If you have a parent or close relative that has had osteoporosis or history of bone fractures and you are in this band of 500 mg-1,000 mg intake you need to look at a calcium supplement to take your total intake up to the 1,200+ mg mark. However before doing that you need to look at the second point – your Heart Health, specifically those factors relating to heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and family history of heart disease. If you have these factors present you will need to try to get your calcium intake up by food. If this is difficult you can look at alternative food based calcium supplements rather than conventional calcium carbonate/citrate supplements.

Finally coming to the most important group of all – the older age group. Here based on requirement we group women from menopause on and men from 65 on, in this group the requirement is quite high and often their dietary intake of calcium is declining. If their intake is well over the 1,000 mg band they should be fine. Although if there is a Family History of osteoporosis it may pay to have a check bone scan.

However if you end up in the 500 mg-1,000 mg band you are likely to need a calcium supplement. It is unlikely that you will be able to lift or change your diet sufficiently to ensure adequate calcium levels unless you are already at the top end of the band. This requirement will be even more urgent if your Family History includes osteoporosis. But again this is tempered by your Heart Health situation. If this is not good you should check with your health professional and consider one of the food based calcium supplements. Some information on Calcium Supplementation and Heart Attacks was given in a previous article.

So to summarise, if you:

  • Calculate what your current calcium intake is
  • Based on age and sex read off your requirement
  • If requirement is greater than intake
  • Provide difference by (a) modifying diet or (b) adding a calcium supplement
  • Decision on (a) or (b) depends on Family History and Heart Health factors
  • If (b) look at use of a food based calcium supplement

Carrying out this checklist should allow decisions in your calcium intake to give you the best combination of benefits and risks.