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Health September 2012

Aid for Age

Hold That Pill and Swallow Calcium-rich Food Instead

By Tait Trussell

Instead — to get your needed calcium — go for baked beans, oatmeal, collard greens, sesame seeds, yogurt, and almonds, say the food experts.

Nobody wants brittle bones. They break too easily. But there’s always your calcium supplement. Right? Not so fast, seniors. Americans spend more than a $1 billion on calcium supplements. But too much calcium can risk heart attack and kidney stones.

Instead — to get your needed calcium — go for baked beans, oatmeal, collard greens, sesame seeds, yogurt, and almonds, say the food experts.

"It's gotten very confusing, but it doesn't need to be," says Ethel Siris, director of the Toni Stabile Osteoporosis Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. The links to heart attack and kidney stones involved calcium supplements, not calcium from food, Dr. Siris and other experts stress. Many other studies have not found such health risks so more research is needed to understand what levels, if any, might be hazardous.

You should know that your body can’t make calcium on its own. If you don’t take in calcium regularly, you steal it from your own skeleton. The amount of calcium you need depends on your age and your gender. For women over 50 and men over 70, the daily intake of calcium should be 1,200 milligrams says the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

You also need enough Vitamin D to absorb the calcium you take. The sun offers the best source of Vitamin D. But, as you know, the dangers of too much sun might lead to skin cancer.

Normally, any excess vitamins or minerals you take are just excreted. But scientists have become more concerned about the effects of calcium supplements on the heart and kidneys.

The Women’s Health Initiative, one large study, found that women who took 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily had 17 percent more kidney stones than women in the study who took a placebo. But, because the study didn’t gauge what foods the women were eating, there was no way to know their total calcium intake.

The lengthy Nurses Health Study of 90,000 women found that those who had plenty of calcium in their food had fewer kidney stones, making for confusion about the matter.

The Wall Street Journal in a recent story reported that trials involving 12,000 people in New Zealand who took calcium supplements had a 30 percent higher risk of heart attacks than those in the trial who didn’t take supplements. Cardiologists are bewildered because apparently no one has linked the calcium in your bloodstream with calcification in your arteries.

Niea Goldberg, medical director of the Tisch Center for Women’s Health at the New York University Langone Medical Center, urges women to get their calcium from food rather than supplement pills.

If you have a bowl of Total cereal in the morning, yogurt and a glass of milk at lunch, “you get 2,000 milligrams of calcium,” Dr. Bess Dawson-Hughes says. She is director of the Bone Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University. “Women should definitely stop taking two big calcium supplements a day.”

Americans get about 70 percent of their calcium from dairy products. In Asia and Africa, people don’t take in anywhere near as much dairy products as we do. They get their calcium from vegetables, which have magnesium. And magnesium is needed to absorb calcium. Natives in these countries also tend to have fewer broken bones than we do in the U.S.

Oatmeal has plenty of calcium as well as magnesium. Collard greens (an ugh for me) offer lots of calcium. I’d rather eat almonds. A handful of these nuts offers 750 milligrams of calcium, as well as protein and fiber to boot.


Tait Trussell is an old guy and fourth-generation professional journalist who writes extensively about aging issues among a myriad of diverse topics.

Meet Tait