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9.8 Deficiency, Supplementation, and Choices

Learning Objectives

  1. List the groups most at risk for calcium inadequacy and explain why they are at risk.
  2. Understand the benefits and risks of calcium supplementation.

Calcium inadequacy is most prevalent in adolescent girls and the elderly. Proper dietary intake of calcium is critical for proper bone health.

Despite the wealth of evidence supporting the many health benefits of calcium (particularly bone health), the average American diet falls short of achieving the recommended dietary intakes of calcium. In fact, in females older than nine years of age, the average daily intake of calcium is only about 70 percent of the recommended intake. Here we will take a closer look at particular groups of people who may require extra calcium intake.

  • Adolescent teens. A calcium-deficient diet is common in teenage girls as their dairy consumption often considerably drops during adolescence.
  • Amenorrheic women and the “female athlete triad.” Amenorrhea refers to the absence of a menstrual cycle. Women who fail to menstruate suffer from reduced estrogen levels, which can disrupt and have a negative impact on the calcium balance in their bodies. The “female athlete triad” is a combination of three conditions characterized by amenorrhea, disrupted eating patterns, and osteoporosis. Exercise-induced amenorrhea and anorexia nervosa-related amenorrhea can decrease bone mass.Drinkwater, B., B. Bruemner, and C. Chesnut. “Menstrual History As a Determinant of Current Bone Density in Young Athletes.” JAMA 263, no. 4 (1990): 545–8.,Marcus, R. et al. “Menstrual Function and Bone Mass in Elite Women Distance Runners: Endocrine and Metabolic Features.” Ann Intern Med 102, no. 2 (1985):158–63. In female athletes, as well as active women in the military, low BMD, menstrual irregularities, and individual dietary habits together with a history of previous stress issues are related to an increased susceptibility to future stress fractures.Nattiv, A. “Stress Fractures and Bone Health in Track and Field Athletes.” J Sci Med Sport 3, no. 3 (2000): 268–79.,Johnson, A.O., et al. “Correlation of Lactose Maldigestion, Lactose Intolerance, and Milk Intolerance.” Am J Clin Nutr 57, no. 3 (1993): 399–401.
  • The elderly. As people age, calcium bioavailability is reduced, the kidneys lose their capacity to convert vitamin D to its most active form, the kidneys are no longer efficient in retaining calcium, the skin is less effective at synthesizing vitamin D, there are changes in overall dietary patterns, and older people tend to get less exposure to sunlight. Thus the risk for calcium inadequacy is great.International Osteoporosis Foundation. “Calcium and Vitamin D in the Elderly.” © 2012. /nutrition/calcium-and-vitamin-d-in-the-elderly.html.
  • Postmenopausal women. Estrogen enhances calcium absorption. The decline in this hormone during and after menopause puts postmenopausal women especially at risk for calcium deficiency. Decreases in estrogen production are responsible for an increase in bone resorption and a decrease in calcium absorption. During the first years of menopause, annual decreases in bone mass range from 3–5 percent. After age sixty-five, decreases are typically less than 1 percent.Daniels, C. E. “Estrogen Therapy for Osteoporosis Prevention in Postmenopausal Women.” National Institute of Health: Pharmacy Update (March/April 2001).
  • Lactose-intolerant people. Groups of people, such as those who are lactose intolerant, or who adhere to diets that avoid dairy products, may not have an adequate calcium intake.
  • Vegans. Vegans typically absorb reduced amounts of calcium because their diets favor plant-based foods that contain oxalates and phytates.Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2010). In addition, because vegans avoid dairy products, their overall consumption of calcium-rich foods may be less.

If you are lactose intolerant, have a milk allergy, are a vegan, or you simply do not like dairy products, remember that there are many plant-based foods that have a good amount of calcium (see Note 9.28 "Tools for Change" in Section 9.3 "Micronutrients Essential for Bone Health: Calcium and Vitamin D" and Table 9.2 "Nondairy Dietary Sources of Calcium") and there are also some low-lactose and lactose-free dairy products on the market.

Calcium Supplements: Which One to Buy?

Getting informed about the risks and benefits of calcium supplementation is important.

Many people choose to fulfill their daily calcium requirements by taking calcium supplements. Calcium supplements are sold primarily as calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, calcium lactate, and calcium phosphate, with elemental calcium contents of about 200 milligrams per pill. It is important to note that calcium carbonate requires an acidic environment in the stomach to be used effectively. Although this is not a problem for most people, it may be for those on medication to reduce stomach-acid production or for the elderly who may have a reduced ability to secrete acid in the stomach. For these people, calcium citrate may be a better choice. Otherwise, calcium carbonate is the cheapest. The body is capable of absorbing approximately 30 percent of the calcium from these forms.

Beware of Lead

There is public health concern about the lead content of some brands of calcium supplements, as supplements derived from natural sources such as oyster shell, bone meal, and dolomite (a type of rock containing calcium magnesium carbonate) are known to contain high amounts of lead. In one study conducted on twenty-two brands of calcium supplements, it was proven that eight of the brands exceeded the acceptable limit for lead content. This was found to be the case in supplements derived from oyster shell and refined calcium carbonate. The same study also found that brands claiming to be lead-free did, in fact, show very low lead levels. Because lead levels in supplements are not disclosed on labels, it is important to know that products not derived from oyster shell or other natural substances are generally low in lead content. In addition, it was also found that one brand did not disintegrate as is necessary for absorption, and one brand contained only 77 percent of the stated calcium content.Ross, E. A., N. J. Szabo, and I. R. Tebbett. “Lead Content of Calcium Supplements.” JAMA 2000 Sep 20; 284 (2000): 1425–33.

Diet, Supplements, and Chelated Supplements

In general, calcium supplements perform to a lesser degree than dietary sources of calcium in providing many of the health benefits linked to higher calcium intake. This is partly attributed to the fact that dietary sources of calcium supply additional nutrients with health-promoting activities. It is reported that chelated forms of calcium supplements are easier to absorb as the chelation process protects the calcium from oxalates and phytates that may bind with the calcium in the intestines. However, these are more expensive supplements and only increase calcium absorption up to 10 percent. In people with low dietary intakes of calcium, calcium supplements have a negligible benefit on bone health in the absence of a vitamin D supplement. However, when calcium supplements are taken along with vitamin D, there are many benefits to bone health: peak bone mass is increased in early adulthood, BMD is maintained throughout adulthood, the risk of developing osteoporosis is reduced, and the incidence of fractures is decreased in those who already had osteoporosis. Calcium and vitamin D pills do not have to be taken at the same time for effectiveness. But remember that vitamin D has to be activated and in the bloodstream to promote calcium absorption. Thus, it is important to maintain an adequate intake of vitamin D.

The Calcium Debate

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal reported that people who take calcium supplements at doses equal to or greater than 500 milligrams per day in the absence of a vitamin D supplement had a 30 percent greater risk for having a heart attack.Bolland, M. J. et al. “Effect of Calcium Supplements on Risk of Myocardial Infarction and Cardiovascular Events: Meta-Analysis.” Br Med J 341, no. c3691 (July 29, 2010). Does this mean that calcium supplements are bad for you? If you look more closely at the study, you will find that 5.8 percent of people (143 people) who took calcium supplements had a heart attack, but so did 5.5 percent of the people (111) people who took the placebo. While this is one study, several other large studies have not shown that calcium supplementation increases the risk for cardiovascular disease. While the debate over this continues in the realm of science, we should focus on the things we do know:

  1. There is overwhelming evidence that diets sufficient in calcium prevent osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.
  2. People with risk factors for osteoporosis are advised to take calcium supplements if they are unable to get enough calcium in their diet. The National Osteoporosis Foundation advises that adults age fifty and above consume 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. This includes calcium both from dietary sources and supplements.
  3. Consuming more calcium than is recommended is not better for your health and can prove to be detrimental. Consuming too much calcium at any one time, be it from diet or supplements, impairs not only the absorption of calcium itself, but also the absorption of other essential minerals, such as iron and zinc. Since the GI tract can only handle about 500 milligrams of calcium at one time, it is recommended to have split doses of calcium supplements rather than taking a few all at once to get the RDA of calcium.

Other Choices that Affect Bone Health

Too Much Soda

There are many proponents of low-phosphate diets for bone health. Scientific studies do provide evidence that diets consisting of a high intake of processed foods and cola beverages compromise bone health as well as increase the prevalence of obesity. Overall however, the data is inconsistent to show whether it is the phosphate content that is the culprit. The mechanism by which diets high in phosphate could cause a decrease in bone health is the following: a high dietary intake of phosphate leads to an increase in blood phosphate levels. High levels of phosphate in the blood stimulate the release of parathyroid hormone (PTH), which in turn stimulates bone resorption and calcium is lost from the bone. When calcium intake is adequate, it shuts off PTH release, but when calcium intake is inadequate and phosphate intake is high, bone health suffers. How much it suffers is under a considerable amount of debate in the scientific literature. It is a good idea to eat foods that are good sources for both calcium and phosphorus. Table 9.6 "Calcium and Phosphorus Contents in 100 Grams of Certain Foods" shows the calcium and phosphorus contents in certain foods.

Tools for Change

While the scientific community debates the effects of phosphate, we do know that carbonated cola beverages have negative effects on bone health. A study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine reports that teenage girls who were physically active and drank carbonated cola beverages were five times more likely to break a bone than physically active girls who did not drink carbonated beverages.Wyshak, G. “Teenaged Girls, Carbonated Beverage Consumption, and Bone Fractures.” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 154 (2000): 610–13. The Beverage Guidance Panel, headed by Dr. Barry Popkin from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, recommends drinking not more than one 8-ounce carbonated soft drink per day. A bone-healthy diet is one that does not replace milk and high calcium snacks with carbonated soft drinks and processed foods.

To decrease cola consumption try replacing sugary processed cola drinks with a nice cold glass of your favorite herbal tea.

A Lactose-Free Diet

Evidence has been uncovered recently indicating that lactose-free diets result in decreased calcium absorption because dietary lactose has been shown to actually enhance calcium absorption. Thus, lactose intolerance (and lactose-free diets) may predispose one to inadequate bone mineralization, an issue now correlated to many other disorders involving pediatric patients. Researchers are still working to clarify the effects of lactose-free diets in youth on long-term bone mineral content and the risks of osteoporosis and bone fractures with aging. Calcium homeostasis is also affected by protein intake, vitamin D status,Holick, MF. Ann Epidemiol. 2009 Feb;19(2):73–8. Epub 2008 Mar 10.NIH Public Access: “Vitamin D Status: Measurements, Interpretations, and Clinical Application.” salt intake, and genetic and other factors, making long-term studies critical in determining the risks of each or all of these to bone health. Recent studies also indicate that in the future, genetic testing may be appropriate for spotting people who may be at a higher risk of lactase deficiency and subsequent decreased BMD. This may enable early intervention through dietary modification or supplementation.Heyman, M. B., MD, MPH. “Lactose Intolerance in Infants, Children, and Adolescents.” Pediatrics 118, no. 3 (September 1, 2006): 1279–86. doi: 10.1542/peds.2006-1721.

Bone Health: A Firm Foundation

In your effort to maintain proper bone health, and prevent and treat osteoporosis, you will need to eat a balanced diet of foods that contain not only calcium and vitamin D, but also the other important bone-building nutrients. You will also need to employ physical exercise habits to encourage bone activity, such as remodeling. By consuming foods rich in bone-building materials on a daily basis, you can reduce your need for supplementation. However, if you cannot get the required amounts of calcium you need through diet alone, there are inexpensive, safe, and effective calcium supplements to choose from. As with anything you choose to consume or with any activity that you choose to undertake, supplementation, diet, and exercise should be uniquely tailored to your circumstances.

Key Takeaways

  • The groups of people who are most at risk for calcium inadequacy are adolescent teens, amenorrheic women, the female triad athlete, the elderly, lactose-intolerant people, those with milk allergies, and vegans.
  • When taking calcium supplements, be sure to monitor vitamin D intake to ensure that the proper benefits are achieved. Split doses are more effective since the gastrointestinal tract can only absorb up to 500 milligrams at one time.
  • There is need for caution when choosing different brands of calcium supplements. Oyster shell and other naturally derived brands tend to contain unusually high concentrations of lead. Other brands do not contain the stated amount of calcium as advertised.
  • The best sources of calcium come from the diet. If you are considered at risk for inadequate calcium intake, then proper supplementation along with a good diet can produce positive results on bone health.

Discussion Starters

  1. Discuss the argument for and against calcium supplementation. Defend your personal view with scientific facts.
  2. Visit the websites below and come up with your own opinion on whether carbonated cola beverages increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. Discuss with your classmates what evidence is lacking. What do you and your classmates think about the position of The Coca-Cola Company Beverage Institute? Do they make a good argument? Can you counter it with better scientific evidence?