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Getting your calcium – dairy vs. dietary supplements

Guy Montag/Flickr

Calcium is essential for healthy bones, but could getting it from supplements be doing more harm than good?

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Taylor Wallace, affiliate professor in the department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University and former senior director of science, policy and government relations at the National Osteoporosis Foundation, discusses the effects that taking calcium supplements could have on cardiovascular health.

Calcium and cardiovascular health aren’t commonly associated with one another, but recent studies highlighting a potential link between heart health and calcium intake has cast the safety of calcium supplements into doubt.

The link stems from the hypothesis that an increased intake in calcium might cause arteries to calcify faster, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. But according to Wallace, the association of calcified arteries with calcium supplements is misguided; partially because it fails to address the impact of supplemental calcium from “fortified” sources like orange juice or soy milk, and partially because there is no correlation between arterial calcification and calcium intake.

“When you have inflammation in your arteries, they calcify regardless of whether you’re taking a supplement or whether you have a high intake of dairy products or other calcium rich foods,” Wallace said. “That’s a normal physiological process in response to inflammation, regardless of whether you take any type of supplemental calcium.”

The level of calcium in a person’s blood remains static regardless of diet or supplement intake. Without an appropriate amount of calcium from external sources (1,300 milligrams daily, according to the FDA), the body compensates by pulling calcium from the bones—something that Wallace says is a major health concern.

“It’s extremely important that everyone get enough calcium,” Wallace said. “Osteoporosis is a huge public health epidemic; over 50 percent of individuals either have osteoporosis or a condition called low bone mass, otherwise known as osteopenia.”

The risks of not getting enough calcium outweigh the risks of getting of calcium from supplements—which, according to Wallace, is essentially nonexistent. 

“This is one of those instances where we’ve made a lot of public awareness around an issue where the scientific data is just not there,” Wallace said. “It’s very poor data, and it’s a very small pool of data from the same lab groups.”

Cardiovascular risks aside, dietary supplements are often cited as being less effective than calcium from dietary sources, like dairy products or dark leafy greens such as kale. So should you be worried about how you get your calcium? According to Wallace, the answer is still no—he himself takes calcium supplements.

“You’re going to get [calcium] from two different ways, you’re either going to get it from the diet, or you’re going to get it from your bones,” Wallace said. “I recommend that if you’re not getting three 8-ounce glasses of milk each day, you should supplement with 300 milligrams of elemental calcium per absent serving of dairy.”