For generations, we've all been told to drink our daily glass (or two) of milk. It makes our bones stronger, after all. The calcium-loaded drink helps to build up our bones and teeth, preventing fractures and actually helping to fortify other major systems in our body. But when it comes to calcium supplements, the news is not so great.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, adults should get a recommended 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams (mg) of calcium every day. A regular cup of milk or a small yogurt has roughly 300 mg. Almond and cashew milk carry roughly 450 mg per cup. Three of those per day, and you should be set. However, supplementing your daily intake with a calcium and vitamin D supplement can be a general go-to for many people. But is it useful? Science says, "not so much."
"Everything has changed in the last several years, and most people don't need calcium supplements," says Mark Moyad, MD, MPh, author of The Supplement Handbook. "Calcium has been loaded into foods, and vitamin D has been loaded into multivitamins. We used to not get enough of them, and now we get too much."
Now, Moyad notes, the risks of calcium supplements far outweigh the benefits for most patients.
"More calcium means people are going to increase their risk of constipation and kidney stones," Moyad adds. "And while pharmaceutical drugs have a clear rule about size, the same does not exist for supplements, so that means calcium pills, especially, tend to be on the larger side."
Meaning? They're a serious choking hazard. It's no surprise, Moyad notes, that they are one of the leading reasons dietary supplements account for more than 23,000 emergency room visits a year. Though the increasing risks of calcium supplements are gaining recognition, Moyad does note that there are exceptions.
"If you're on an osteoporosis or steroid-based drug, you absolutely have to go on calcium and vitamin D to prevent bone loss," he adds. "But for most people, there's so much calcium and vitamin D in food right now that a supplement is not needed."
For those with a strong family history of osteoperosis, there are options. As a preventative measure, the FRAX tool, made by the World Health Organization, helps to assess each person's risk of fracture and can help determine whether a calcium supplement may be necessary.
For most, Moyad adds, it's time to reevaluate depending on the supplement. It may seem like an easy fix or a quick way to meet the daily recommended value, but with a regular, healthy diet, the needs should be met. A simple test, along with research on studies could signal a major change in your supplement needs. And remember, if you're not into dairy, you can get enough calcium from plant-based sources like broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, butternut squash, collards, and carrots.
"When it comes to supplements, you're taking about money and popping pills for the rest of your life," Moyad says. "Doing your homework—in combination with your doctor—can be very powerful."