By Mayo Clinic News Network

Calcium is important for optimal bone health throughout your life. Although diet is the best way to get calcium, calcium supplements may be an option if your diet falls short.

Before you consider calcium supplements, be sure you understand how much calcium you need, the pros and cons of calcium supplements, and which type of supplement to choose.

The benefits of calcium

Your body needs calcium to build and maintain strong bones. Your heart, muscles and nerves also need calcium to function properly.

Some studies suggest that calcium, along with vitamin D, may have benefits beyond bone health, perhaps protecting against cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure. But evidence about such health benefits is not definitive.

The risks of too little calcium

If you don't get enough calcium, you could face health problems related to weak bones:

  • Children may not reach their full potential adult height.
  • Adults may have low bone mass, which is a risk factor for osteoporosis.

Many Americans don't get enough calcium in their diets. Children and adolescent girls are at particular risk, but so are adults age 50 and older.

Calcium requirements

How much calcium you need depends on your age and sex. Note that the upper limit in the chart represents the safe boundary — it's not how much you should aim to get. If you exceed the upper limit, you may increase your risk of health problems related to excessive calcium.

Calcium: Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for adults
MenDaily RDADaily upper limit
19-50 years1,000 mg2,500 mg
51-70 years1,000 mg2,000 mg
71 and older1,200 mg2,000 mg
Women  
19-50 years1,000 mg2,500 mg
51 and older1,200 mg2,000 mg

Calcium and vitamin D

Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. For this reason, some calcium supplements contain vitamin D. A few foods naturally contain small amounts of vitamin D, such as canned salmon with bones, and egg yolks. You can also get vitamin D from fortified foods and sun exposure. The RDA for vitamin D is 600 international units (15 micrograms) a day for most adults.

Calcium and diet

Your body doesn't produce calcium, so you must get it through other sources. Calcium can be found in a variety of foods, including:

  • Dairy products, such as cheese, milk and yogurt
  • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli and kale
  • Fish with edible soft bones, such as sardines and canned salmon
  • Calcium-fortified foods and beverages, such as soy products, cereal and fruit juices

Even if you eat a healthy, balanced diet, you may find it difficult to get enough calcium if you:

  • Follow a vegan diet
  • Have lactose intolerance and limit dairy products
  • Consume large amounts of protein or sodium, which can cause your body to excrete calcium
  • Have osteoporosis
  • Are receiving long-term treatment with corticosteroids
  • Have certain bowel or digestive diseases that decrease your ability to absorb calcium, such as inflammatory bowel disease or celiac disease