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Calcium, vitamin D, and your bones

Alternate Names

Osteoporosis - calcium; Osteoporosis - low bone density

Bone Strength and Calcium

Your body needs calcium to keep your bones dense and strong. Low bone density can cause your bones to become brittle and fragile. These weak bones can break easily, even without an obvious injury.

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. Eat foods that provide the right amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and protein. This kind of diet will give your body the building blocks it needs to make and maintain strong bones.

How Much Calcium and Vitamin D Do I Need?

All adults under age 50 should have:

  • 1,000 mg of calcium daily
  • 400 - 800 IU of vitamin D daily

Adults age 51 and older should have:

  • Women -- 1,200 mg of calcium daily
  • Men -- 1,000 mg of calcium daily
  • Men and women -- 800 - 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily

Calcium and Dairy Products

Milk and dairy products are the best sources of calcium. This includes yogurts, cheeses, and buttermilk, which contain a form of calcium that your body can absorb easily.

Adults should choose fat-free (skim) milk or low-fat (2% or 1%) milk, and other lower fat dairy products. Removing some of the fat does not lower the amount of calcium in a dairy product.

  • Yogurt, most cheeses, and buttermilk come in fat-free or low-fat versions.
  • Vitamin D helps your body use calcium, which is why vitamin D is often added to milk in production.

If you eat very few or no dairy products, you can find calcium in other foods. It is often added to orange juice, soy milk, tofu, ready-to-eat cereals, and breads. Check the labels on these foods for added calcium.

Other Sources of Calcium

Green leafy vegetables -- such as broccoli, collards, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, and bok choy (Chinese cabbage) -- are good sources of calcium.

Other foods that can help you get enough calcium are:

  • Salmon and sardines that are canned with their bones (you can eat these soft bones)
  • Almonds, Brazil nuts, sunflower seeds, tahini (sesame paste), and dried beans
  • Blackstrap molasses

Other tips to make sure your body can use the calcium in your diet:

  • Cook high-calcium vegetables in a small amount of water for the shortest possible time. They will keep more calcium this way.
  • Be careful about what you eat with calcium-rich foods. Certain fibers, such as wheat brain and foods with oxalic acid (spinach and rhubarb), can prevent your body from absorbing calcium.

Your doctor may recommend a calcium or vitamin D supplement for the calcium and vitamin D you need.

References

Lewiecki EM. In the clinic. Osteoporosis. Ann Intern Med. 2011 Jul 5;155(1):ITC1-1-15;quiz ITC1-16.

National Osteoporosis Foundation. Clinician's Guide to Prevention and Treatment of Osteoporosis. Washington, DC: National Osteoporosis Foundation; 2010.


Review Date: 5/17/2012
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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