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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.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Got milk? That's not just an advertising slogan. It's a legitimate question. 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.

Many people have also taken to popping calcium supplements as a preventive measure against disease. But can they really help?

A recent report published in the Harvard Health Letter shows no connection between high calcium intake and lower hip fracture risk. But it may not be for the reason you think.

The report concludes that 600-1,000 milligrams of calcium a day is a "reasonable goal," both for keeping bones strong and for lowering the risk of colon cancer, but suggests that amounts above that level might not do much good. The report also acknowledges that the study participants on whom the findings were based may not have shown a significant benefit from calcium supplements because they were already getting more than 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day through their diet.

"Plenty of people already get enough calcium from their daily food intake," says Nelson Watts, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Center at the University of Cincinnati. Too many people are popping those convenient -- and tasty -- flavored calcium "soft chews" at each meal, Watts suggests. At 500 milligrams a chew, that's 1,500 milligrams a day.

"Enough calcium is a good thing," says Watts. Too much, on the other hand, can lead to problems such as kidney stones. "There's really no benefit to going over a total -- food and supplements combined -- of 1,500 milligrams of calcium a day," Watts advises.

According to Watts, there is no research that shows that calcium supplements are more or less effective than calcium-rich foods in maintaining bone health. "But," he says, "they are what their name suggests: supplements." Calcium-rich foods provide other nutrients as well, Watts says. But if you can't answer "yes" to the question, "Got milk?" by all means, take a supplement.

For women, adult bone mass peaks at about age 30. With aging, bone loss gradually happens and then becomes increased after menopause. So it is important for young women to build good bone mass and for older women to do what they can to maintain it.

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.

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