The Safest Way to Get Calcium

Doctors say further study is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn about the safety of calcium supplements. Still, they agree that getting calcium from diet is probably best.

"Calcium obtained from a meal is slowly absorbed," and does not negatively impact the arteries, Dr. Reid explains.

"The findings made me rethink what I tell my patients," says Susan V. Bukata, MD, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

Since the Institute of Medicine recommends 1,200 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day for most women aged 50 and older, "my reflex has always been to prescribe a 1,200-mg supplement to these patients. Now I work with them to increase calcium in their diet. In many cases, I can cut the supplement to 600 mg, which presumably cuts heart risks," she says.

Dairy products, green leafy vegetables, and supplemented juices, breads and cereals are all good sources of calcium.

Supplements for Some

Scott J. Zashin, MD, clinical assistant professor in the rheumatology division at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, agrees calcium is best obtained from food but that supplements may be fine for certain populations.

"As with most things, one size does not fit all. Supplements are probably safe for a woman with few heart disease risk factors. But for a woman at high risk, it may be better to avoid supplements if possible," he says.

Kenneth G. Saag, MD, MSc, associate professor of medicine in the division of clinical immunology and rheumatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, agrees that supplementation needs to be individualized.

People who are taking corticosteroids, who have chronic inflammatory disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease or who are otherwise at high risk for losing extra calcium may need 1,500 mg of calcium daily, Dr. Saag says.

He thinks many people in his practice are "over-supplementing. They are getting calcium from supplements, from multivitamins, from [supplemented] foods and so on, and they end up taking more than the recommended amount. The onus is on the patient and the doctor to sit down and see how much calcium the patient is actually getting and avoid over-supplementation," he says.