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    Calcium: Gotta Have It for Healthy Bones

    Milk and other calcium-rich foods are an important part of a bone-healthy lifestyle that can not only reduce the risk of fractures as you get older, but may also protect against certain cancers.

    How to Get Enough Calcium

    While medicines are available to help treat the bone-weakening disease osteoporosis, making a commitment to a "bone-healthy lifestyle" might mean preventing the condition in the first place. You can help increase bone strength by making sure that you have enough calcium, vitamin D, and exercise in your routine, says Watts.

    Before you start "boning up" on your calcium supplements, look at your diet. If you already eat a lot of calcium-rich foods such as skim milk, yogurt, low-fat cheese, almonds, sardines, and calcium-fortified orange juice, you may be getting what you need in your diet.

    In addition to diary products, Georgianna Donadio, PhD, MSc, program director for the National Institute of Whole Health in Boston, also says you can build up bone reserve by adding other calcium-rich foods such as leafy green vegetables (including kale, escarole, collard greens, and bok choy; nuts (especially almonds and pistachios); legumes; and seeds.

    Limit sodas, Donadio adds, because too much phosphorus can also deplete calcium levels. Donadio also advises against:

    • Antacids (you need stomach acid to aid in calcium absorption)
    • Caffeine, which reduces calcium absorption
    • Excessive alcohol
    • Excess sodium
    • Excessive red meat

    If you take a calcium supplement, take no more than 500 or 600 milligrams at a time. It will be absorbed better that way.

    Importance of Vitamin D

    While there's a possibility you may be taking in too much calcium, chances are you're not taking in enough vitamin D, Watts says. "Vitamin D is underutilized," he says, observing that the vitamin is not found naturally in most of the foods we eat, and the amount added to milk or multivitamins is not enough to maximize calcium absorption. Most of the vitamin D we get is produced by the body via exposure to sunlight.

    "More D is better," says Watts, who believes that the recommended daily allowance is too low and advises patients to have their blood levels analyzed, and if needed, take additional vitamin D-3 as a supplement. Vitamin D-3, also called cholecalciferol, is the form of vitamin D that best supports bone health. (According to the Institute of Medicine, the tolerable upper intake for people 14 years and older is 2,000 IU, but many experts have challenged that limit.)

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