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When should I start taking calcium supplements?

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The question

At what age should one start taking calcium supplements?

The answer

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This is a common question but it's not exactly the question one should be asking. It's far more important to ask whether you're getting enough calcium in your diet because you may not need calcium supplements ever, regardless of age.

For those who get their daily required dose of calcium as part of their regular diet, there is no need to add supplements. Calcium supplements do not have to be taken in addition to a balanced diet; they can supplement inadequate calcium dietary intake.

While "adequate" is usually thought of as the bare minimum, when it comes to calcium, an adequate amount of calcium isn't a minimum, it's the absolute target. Negative effects can come from either not getting enough calcium or from getting too much.

Calcium is needed for many functions throughout the body. It's found in the blood, muscles, heart and more, but is only stored in one location - your bones. Think of your bones as the calcium bank of your body. If you are not getting enough daily calcium, other parts of your system will withdraw it from "the bank." If your bank continues to be depleted, your bones will become weaker, which can lead to greater risk of developing osteoporosis or sustaining fractures.

Taking in too much calcium doesn't benefit you either. Surplus calcium isn't stored in the bones; most of it will be passed out of the body through normal kidney function. The excess from calcium supplements that passes through the kidneys has been linked to an increased risk of developing kidney stones over time.

Even how you consume your daily calcium requirement is important. People can only absorb between 500 and 600 milligrams of calcium for each sitting. So you only reap the benefits of consuming the adequate daily amount of calcium by spreading the consumption across the day to maximize your absorption.

Foods rich in calcium include dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese), fortified drinks (orange juice or soy drinks fortified with calcium) and dark green vegetables (bok choy, kale).

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Dr. Angela Cheung is the director of the osteoporosis program at the University Health Network in Toronto.

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