At almost every nutrition-related Lunch ‘n Learn I conduct, I get at least one question about supplements. The supplement that most often comes up in conversation is calcium, a mineral that’s best known for its involvement in bone health (but also has a role in blood clotting, muscle and nerve action, and basic metabolic functions). Since calcium is involved in so many different aspects of our health, it’s important to make sure we’re getting enough of it. Calcium intake is often too low in the following groups of people: women, the elderly, and those who do not consume dairy. For these populations, and others for whom adequate calcium intake is a concern, doctors may prescribe a calcium supplement.
Calcium supplements have a lot of what I call “special considerations,” meaning that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all pill, and there are many factors that can help or hinder how well the calcium from a supplement is absorbed. Here are some key points to note about calcium supplements:
- Supplemental calcium normally takes one of two forms: calcium citrate and calcium carbonate. Calcium citrate is easily absorbed and digested, so it’s a good choice for many people. Calcium carbonate, which also happens to be the active ingredient in Tums, is best absorbed when taken with food. Calcium citrate supplements are probably better for people with digestive issues, and calcium carbonate supplements may be less expensive, but at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter which form of calcium you choose.
- Calcium is best absorbed when it’s taken alongside Vitamin D. This is why many supplements contain both. Vitamin D is best absorbed when taken with food, especially food that contains fat, since fat helps transport Vitamin D throughout the body. If you’re taking a combined calcium and Vitamin D supplement, make sure you take it with a meal or snack.
- Our bodies can only absorb 500 mg of calcium at a time. Anything greater than that amount just gets excreted and isn’t used. It’s especially important to be aware of this fact if you take more than 500 mg of supplemental calcium a day, or if you take a calcium supplement alongside your multivitamin. It’s very easy to consume more than 500 mg of calcium at a time if you take a calcium supplement at the same time as a multivitamin. Make sure to take calcium-containing supplements or vitamins 4-6 hours apart so that your body has time to properly metabolize each supplement and none of the calcium in those supplements is going to waste.
It’s best to consume calcium, like most other nutrients, in its natural form – food. Dairy products like low-fat or non-fat milk and yogurt are some of the best sources of calcium, as the calcium they contain is present in high-quantities and is well-absorbed. If you are unable to or choose not to consume dairy, other good sources of calcium include fortified soymilk, orange juice, and cereal; okra; and green leafy veggies like kale, collard greens, and bok choy.