Calcium is an alkaline mineral that is necessary for bone health, but it’s not the only important player in maintaining strong bones. Vitamin D3, Vitamin K2, and magnesium are at least as important as calcium for long-term bone health. We focus way too much on calcium alone for strong bones, when it is actually a combination of minerals and vitamins that work in concert to maintain healthy bones. And by the way, calcium intake does not correlate with a lower fracture risk.
Too Much Calcium Can Be Dangerous
You might think…I’m going to take a calcium supplement anyway, just to be safe. What’s the harm in that? Well, it’s actually quite harmful. Too much calcium can be dangerous. It can end up in the wrong place and wreak havoc. Our bodies have a hard time absorbing calcium into bone tissue all at once, so it ends up calcifying other tissue in the body, such as our kidneys (and we end up with kidney stones) and our arteries (and we end up with arterial plaque). Up to 40% of most arterial plaque is made up of calcium. This can include plaque in the brain (think Alzheimer’s). And kidney stones are mostly made of calcium. So getting calcium through food is safe, but getting calcium via a supplement, particularly without all of the other supportive nutrients, can be harmful. The single most important point about calcium is – it’s not how much is going in your mouth, it’s how much your body can absorb and use. And Vitamin D and other nutrients such as magnesium, zinc, copper, Vitamin K…the list goes on – play a critical role in how your body absorbs and uses calcium.
Where Should I Get My Calcium?
The best way to get your calcium is through your food. You can find it in dark leafy greens (especially spinach, collard greens, kale, bok choy), nuts (particularly almonds), legumes, and sesame seeds (tahini is actually very high in calcium) – all of these foods are loaded with highly absorbable calcium, along with other important nutrients. Contrary to what the dairy lobby claims, you do not need to consume dairy products to get sufficient calcium. In fact, studies show that countries with the highest milk consumption also have the highest osteoporosis rates. Have you ever wondered where elephants, giraffes and horses, some of the biggest-boned mammals in existence, get their calcium? They’re not sitting around drinking cow’s milk! They eat plant foods all day long. Which is exactly what we humans should be doing. And parents – if you’re still thinking you have to feed your kids milk… a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that higher intakes of fruits and vegetables throughout the teen years improve bone density in adulthood. And it’s because all of those amazing nutrients that I’ve been mentioning that are so important for bone health are found abundantly in fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods.
When do I need a supplement?
There’s no need to be taking calcium supplements unless you have osteopenia or osteoporosis. If you do take a calcium supplement, the type of calcium is very important. You want to avoid carbonate or ascorbate forms of calcium – they are very hard to absorb. The best forms are citrate, phosphate, malate, and other multi-chelate forms. A newer supplement from some high quality companies called MCHC (micro-crystalline calcium hydroxy-apatite complex) is derived from whole animal bone and is particularly easy to absorb into our bones. You want to avoid cheap, low-quality brands such as Viactiv (whose first ingredient is corn syrup!). Make sure you choose a high-quality brand – look at the ingredients. For maximum bone density retention and function, a blend of calcium, magnesium, Vitamin D, Vitamin K, and other supportive minerals is best. For people with osteopenia, Jarrow’s ‘Ultra Bone Up’ (at half the recommended dosage) is a good option. For those with osteoporosis, Garden of Life’s ‘Grow Bone’ is a good blend of bone-strengthening minerals. And always take minerals on a full stomach.
Dr. Walter Willet, from Harvard University’s School of Public Health and one of the most respected nutritionists in the world, recommends no more than 700mg total calcium per day for healthy adults. And since part of this comes from food, most healthy adults don’t need to supplement more than 500mg, depending on your diet.