As those decades-long “Got Milk?” ads implied, calcium is super-important for bone health. But milk mustaches and strong bones aside, this wonder mineral is also vital for your body’s muscles and nerves, activates enzymes, and may even be beneficial for your blood pressure, according to dietitian Kate Ingram, R.D.N., M.P.H., with The Vitality Dietitians.
In addition to dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, you’ll find calcium in leafy greens, canned fish like sardines and salmon, nuts, and fortified foods like tofu or orange juice, says Ingram. You’ll also find it in chia seeds, almonds, and edamame. Still, despite its importance (and the plethora of sources), according to estimates from the NIH, about 40 percent of us come up short on calcium, which can eventually weaken bones (among other things).
You see, when your calcium levels are low, the body takes the mineral from the bones to maintain normal blood levels, says dietitian Johna Burdeos, R.D. “Over time, this can lead to a decrease in bone density and increase risk of bone diseases like osteoporosis, a condition in which bones become fragile and may fracture,” she explains.
Clearly, calcium is a cornerstone of health, so you may be curious about whether you should supplement with it, and, if so, how to do it the right way. Ahead, experts provide need-to-know tips for taking calcium supplements.
1. Figure Out How Much Calcium You Need
First things first, you’ll want to get a baseline of just how much calcium you actually need (which can vary depending on age and sex) before picking a supplement. On top of that, some groups of people—including pregnant and lactating women—need more calcium than others.
For reference, here are the average recommended daily values of calcium for different groups of people:
- Teens 14–18 years: 1,300 milligrams
- Adults 19–50 years: 1,000 milligrams
- Adult men 51–70 years: 1,000 milligrams
- Adult women 51–70 years: 1,200 milligrams
- Adults 71 years and older: 1,200 milligrams
- Pregnant and breastfeeding teens: 1,300 milligrams
- Pregnant and breastfeeding adults: 1,000 milligrams
2. Track How Much Calcium You Actually Eat
Because dietary sources of calcium also provide other vitamins and minerals, it’s always a good idea to try to get calcium from the foods you eat, says board-certified family physician Dr. Laura Purdy, M.D.,
The good news: Your morning serving of yogurt may very well give you a good push toward your goals. According to the NIH, eight ounces of plain, low-fat yogurt offers 415 milligrams of calcium, which is more than a third of the daily value for a lot of people. Sprinkle a tablespoon of chia seeds onto your yogurt and, voila, you’ve got 75 more milligrams of calcium.
To give you an idea of the calcium you’ll get from other foods, a cup of fortified OJ has about 350 milligrams of calcium, a cup of spinach contains 30 milligrams, and half a cup of firm tofu made with calcium sulfate offers 250 milligrams.
3. Consult with a Doctor or Dietician
If you’re struggling to meet the recommended calcium intake through food alone, it’s time to consider supplementing with calcium, says dietitian Crystal Scott, R.D., with Top Nutrition Coaching. Vegans and those who are lactose intolerant, in particular, may have a tough time getting enough calcium since they eschew or avoid calcium-rich dairy products.
That said, if you’ve tallied up your calcium intake and are considering taking supplements, talk to a registered dietitian or your doctor first. “Calcium supplements may interfere with the absorption of some medications, such as thyroid medications and certain antibiotics,” Scott says. “It’s important to consult a healthcare professional to understand any potential interactions.”
Also, too much calcium can cause trouble (more on that below!) and interfere with the absorption of other minerals, like iron and zinc, adds Scott. Weigh-in from a healthcare provider will ensure you’re safe to supplement with calcium—and that you’re taking the right amount.
You can schedule a free nutrition consultation with a nutritionist from The Vitamin Shoppe here.
4. Split your doses
To make sure you get the most benefit from taking a calcium supplement, consider the dosage. Calcium is best utilized when taken in smaller doses (500 milligrams or less) throughout the day, Scott says. Taking a large dose of calcium all at once may decrease absorption. “The body has a limit to how much calcium it can absorb at one time,” she explains. “By spacing out the doses, you allow for better absorption.”
5. Consider Pairing Your Supplement with Other Nutrients
Calcium supplements come in different forms, such as calcium carbonate and calcium citrate. Calcium carbonate is better absorbed when taken with meals because the presence of food in the stomach triggers the release of stomach acid, which helps break down and absorb calcium more effectively, Scott explains. Calcium citrate, meanwhile, is generally better absorbed on an empty stomach. So, if you’re taking carbonate, make sure to do so alongside a snack or meal.
With that in mind, you’ll also want to consider your intake of other nutrients that help the body use calcium. The most important is vitamin D, which the body needs in order to absorb calcium. It’s pretty tough to find naturally in foods (fatty fish, eggs, and sardines are your best bets), but you can also get it from sun exposure and some fortified foods. And, luckily for those who don’t love sardines or get much sunshine, a lot of calcium supplements are formulated with vitamin D, too.
6. Don’t Go Overboard
You know the expression “too much of a good thing”? It definitely applies to calcium, so make sure you don’t overdo it when supplementing with it.
The recommended intake for calcium is 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams daily for most adults. According to the NIH, the tolerable upper limit for calcium is 2,500 milligrams per day for those 19 to 50 years old, and 2,000 milligrams per day for those who are 51 and up. Tolerable upper intakes for nutrients are the daily maximum that’s unlikely to cause adverse health effects.
Taking too much calcium can cause hypercalcemia, a condition in which the calcium levels in your blood rise above normal levels. In mild cases of hypercalcemia, you might not notice any symptoms, but in more serious cases, you might have to pee a lot as your kidneys work overtime to filter all of the calcium, according to the Mayo Clinic. Too much calcium can also lead to nausea, vomiting, and constipation, Purdy says. Additionally, it can cause heart problems, like irregular heartbeats, which could lead to heart palpitations or even fainting.