While calcium isn't your only ticket to strong bones, it's a critical building block.
Women under 50 need 1,000 mg a day; older women need 1,200 mg a day. Our experts say that food sources of calcium have an edge because they're rich in bonus nutrients (such as protein), but supplements are a suitable backup. The following know-how can help you hit your mark.
- Low-fat dairy delivers more. Calcium isn't contained in the fat portion of milk, so when fat is skimmed away, the calcium level per serving rises. For example, 8 ounces of whole-milk yogurt has about 274 mg of calcium while an equal amount of low-fat yogurt delivers about 400 mg.
- Milk isn't your only option. If you can't tolerate dairy or dislike the taste, other good sources of calcium are dry roasted almonds (about 95 mg in 1/4 cup), green leafy vegetables such as spinach (122 mg in 1/2 cup cooked), and canned salmon (190 mg in 3 ounces) and sardines (370 mg in 8 medium fish). Calcium-fortified foods such as cereal also can do the trick. Check nutrition labels for the amount of calcium per serving.
- Absorption depends on D. Vitamin D regulates calcium uptake in the small intestine and helps maintain the blood levels needed to build bones. Skin makes vitamin D in response to sunlight (about 30 minutes of unprotected exposure a week can often deliver enough). If you prefer to avoid UV rays, aim to get 600–1,000 IU of vitamin D per day through foods such as sockeye salmon and fortified milk, or ask your doctor about taking a supplement.
- Big doses are best divided. The body can't handle too much calcium at once. Beyond 500 mg or so, the percentage absorbed declines with increasing doses. If you decide to take a supplement, portion out your daily quota in two or three mini doses.
- Dose and pill size aren't synonymous. Calcium supplements typically are sold in compound forms such as calcium carbonate and calcium citrate (to stabilize the mineral). So check the supplement facts to make sure you take the right amount. For example, a 1,250 mg capsule of calcium carbonate contains 500 mg of calcium and 750 mg of carbonate. For 1,000 mg of calcium, you'd need to take one capsule twice a day.