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What can calcium really do?
Prevent Stroke, Lose Weight & Build Bones

Calcium is a controversial thing. The information surrounding where you should get it, how it helps (or hurts) and the different types is confusing. It's important to separate the facts from the fiction.

Stroke

Lets start with a surprising fact. Getting more calcium in your diet, particularly from dairy can reduce your risk of stroke by 30%.

In a 13-year study, 41,526 Japanese men and women between the ages of 40 and 59 had their diets assessed. The group that drank the most dairy calcium and the group that had the highest total intake of calcium, saw a 30% reduction in stroke risk.

But the key finding wasn't calcium, it was the role vitamin D played. The subjects who saw the most benefit also had desirable levels of vitamin D and ate enough protein. Here's how it works.

Vitamin D helps with the absorption of calcium. Two prime sources of vitamin D are the sun and dairy products. Since most people don't get enough sun exposure, especially in the winter, getting the suggested 800 to 1,000 IU a day can be difficult.

Dairy products have all three essential muscle and bone building ingredients. Vitamin D, protein and calcium. People who drink low-fat or fat free dairy products get vitamin D, which helps absorb the calcium and then the protein for muscle growth.

It wasn't just the calcium from milk, but the combination of calcium, vitamin D and protein. For people who are lactose intolerant, you can get lactose free, fat free and organic options.

Weight Loss

Have you heard that calcium can help you lose weight? It's both fact AND fiction. In a study that combined data from 13 previous trials, researchers found that bumping up calcium intake to about 1,241 milligrams daily led to an increase in fat excretion of 5.2 grams per day. That's about 50 calories a day or five pounds a year.

Pills weren't the answer. When the data was carefully analyzed, the biggest benefit was for people who got calcium from their diet. The extra calcium also didn't have much impact on people who were already getting enough, but rather people who started out with a low calcium intake.

A Canadian study may hold some answers. When obese women who had low calcium intake were given calcium and vitamin D supplements, it reduced their appetites. Researchers believe that your brain may be able to detect low calcium levels and try to get more by making you hungry. More food means more chances of eating calcium.

Once your body has enough calcium, your brain may stifle your desire to eat more. What that means is calcium and weight loss is both fact and fiction. For people who don't get enough calcium in their diet, taking in about 1,241 milligrams daily can help curb hunger and burn off about 5 pounds a year. But if you already get enough calcium, there's really no weight loss benefit.

Bone Building

The biggest myth is "taking calcium builds strong bones." It sounds good, but it's simply not true. In a 12-year study of 77,761 women, researchers found no differences in bone fractures or any bone strengthening benefit from higher consumption of ANY food sources of calcium.

Milk didn't help. Vegetables didn't help. NO food source of calcium helped with bone strengthening or led to a reduction in bone fractures. The problem was a lack of exercise.

The more "advanced" a society becomes; the less physical work individuals have to engage in. The most important thing anyone can do for bone health is, exercises that require "...high forces and/or generate high impacts..."

Swimming won't do it. Yoga doesn't help. "Exercise involving high impacts, even a relatively small amount, appears to be the most efficient for enhancing bone mass..." Specifically exercises that stress the bones or "weight bearing" exercises like weight or resistance training.

Where can you get calcium?

High levels of dietary calcium can be found in dairy products like milk, cheese & yogurt; collard greens, black-eyed peas, black beans, kale, Chinese cabbage, oranges, sardines and almonds.

  • 11-18 year olds should get about 1,300 mg a day.
  • 19-50 year olds about 1,000 mg.
  • Women over the age of 50 should get 1,200 mg a day.
  • Men over 50 shouldn't take more than 200 mg a day from vitamins, because 1,500 mg a day or more TOTAL may raise their risk of getting prostate cancer.

Calcium Supplements

If you're unwilling or unable to get enough calcium in your diet, supplements may be able to help. You'll see calcium typically offered in two forms, calcium carbonate and calcium citrate.

If you have decreased stomach acid (a common problem as we age), calcium citrate can be absorbed better. Calcium citrate can also be taken on an empty stomach. Calcium carbonate is cheaper, but it must be taken with food to ensure full absorption.

Be careful. The amount of calcium listed on the label isn't how much your body can absorb. You need to look for something called elemental calcium; that's how much your body can absorb from each tablet.

A 500-milligram tablet of calcium carbonate typically provides 200 milligrams of elemental calcium. A 500-milligram tablet of calcium citrate provides only about 100 milligrams of elemental calcium. That's the difference of 5 versus 10 tablets a day!

If you take tablets, don't take more than 500 milligrams at a time because your body can't efficiently absorb much more. One tablet in the morning and another in the evening, each accompanied by about 400 IU of vitamin D is recommended.

Remember, NEVER start taking any supplements until you've discussed them with your doctor or health care provider first.

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Uploaded 6/6/2012
9/9/2012
Updated 2/17/2013
Updated 11/24/2014

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  • What Bran and Calcium Pills

    Don't take your calcium supplements with bran cereal or muffins. Take them at least a couple hours afterwards. Bran has phytates which bind with minerals and interfere with calcium absorption.

    In a large, long-term study of Swedish women, researchers found that subjects who took in more than 1,400 mg of calcium per day had higher death rates. The increased risk was doubled for women who took calcium supplements versus women who simply ate a lot of calcium rich foods.
    On the other hand, women who took in less than 600 mg of calcium per day ALSO had higher death rates. The longest living women took in between 600 and 1,400 mg of calcium per day.