Got calcium? A calcium-rich diet is healthy, but supplements may harm you

October 14, 2016 Providence Health Team

Calcium is good for you. However, if you take calcium supplements, you may be increasing a damaging buildup of plaque in your arteries.

This is the somewhat mixed conclusion of a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University and elsewhere.

"When it comes to using vitamin and mineral supplements, particularly calcium supplements being taken for bone health, many Americans think that more is always better," says Erin Michos, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "But our study adds to the body of evidence that excess calcium in the form of supplements may harm the heart and vascular system."

Researchers examined almost 5,500 medical records over a 10-year period. They concluded that high total calcium intake seemed to lower the risk of atherosclerosis – the buildup of plaque in your arteries – particularly when the calcium came from sources other than supplements.

But the risk of calcification in the arteries appeared higher for people who used calcium supplements, researchers say.

Atherosclerosis can lead to heart disease, heart attack or stroke.

Why calcium matters

The mineral calcium is stored in the bones and teeth, supporting their strength. The amount you need to take in each day varies according to your age and life stage, according to the National Institutes of Health. The agency lists these recommended amounts:

Birth to 6 months
Infants 7–12 months
Children 1–3 years
Children 4–8 years
Children 9–13 years
Teens 14–18 years
Adults 19–50 years
Adult men 51–70 years
Adult women 51–70 years
Adults 71 years and older
Pregnant and breastfeeding teens
Pregnant and breastfeeding adults
200 mg
260 mg
700 mg
1,000 mg
1,300 mg
1,300 mg
1,000 mg
1,000 mg
1,200 mg
1,200 mg
1,300 mg
1,000 mg

Calcium is available in many foods, especially:

  • Milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Kale and broccoli
  • Fish with soft, edible bones, such as sardines and salmon
  • Cereals, tofu, fruit juices, soy and rice beverages often have calcium added

For deeper reading

The study, “Calcium Intake From Diet and Supplements and the Risk of Coronary Artery Calcification and its Progression Among Older Adults: 10‐Year Follow‐up of the Multi‐Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA),” was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Johns Hopkins issued a press release describing the study’s findings in blunter terms: “Calcium Supplements May Damage the Heart.

To understand why calcium is important and why many people take calcium supplements, see the Calcium Fact Sheet from the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements. (Under the question, “Can calcium be harmful?” the NIH says, “Some studies show that people who consume high amounts of calcium might have increased risks of prostate cancer and heart disease, but more research is needed.”)

Talk to your health care provider about whether you’re getting enough calcium and what adjustments, if any, you can make to your diet to ensure you get the right amount. To find a Providence provider, consult our multistate directory.

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