Calcium & heart disease, which is better: supplements or food?

  • 2 Minutes Read
Katherine Isacks
Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDCES - Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES)

Which is better when it comes to calcium and heart disease? Supplements or food? While it is well established that calcium is essential for strong bones and other body functions, what factors should you consider when it comes to heart health and calcium intake?

Calcium and heart disease

The connection between calcium and heart disease

While calcium is required for heart health, it is important to pay attention to where the calcium is coming from. Research suggests that calcium in the form of dietary supplements may raise the risk of plaque build-up in the arteries and heart damage. One study, in particular, showed that calcium supplements increased the risk of heart attacks.

On the other hand, a diet rich in calcium-containing foods appears to have a protective effect on heart health. At this time, eating calcium-rich foods is safer for heart health than relying on supplements to meet calcium needs.

Dietary sources of calcium

Dairy. Dairy products top the list of calcium-containing foods. Just one serving of dairy provides about 300 mg of calcium as well as vitamin D, a nutrient that is important for calcium absorption. If you need to control calories, then go for reduced-fat or fat-free choices for milk, cheese, and yogurt.

Fish with bones. Sardines, salmon and other fish packed with their bones are excellent sources of calcium if you eat the bones. For example 3 oz sardines = 300 mg calcium.

Fortified foods & Beverages. Calcium-fortified foods and beverages can be excellent sources of calcium. For instance, orange juice, soy, almond, and rice milk fortified with both calcium and vitamin D. For soy milk, choose brands that use calcium carbonate for a more "bioavailable" form of calcium (usable and available for absorption in the human gut). For tofu, choose brands that are packaged in calcium-rich liquid. Fortified breakfast cereals can also be a good source of calcium.

Plant sources. There are a number of food components in plant foods that can affect how well calcium is absorbed. Other minerals in the food (e.g. iron and zinc), phytate/phytic acid (found in nuts, seeds, and grains), and oxalates (found in greens such as spinach, Swiss chard, and beet greens) can interfere with calcium absorption. Lower oxalate greens provide more bioavailable calcium - look for bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, and kale.

Curious about how different foods compare with regards to their calcium content? Check out the calcium fact sheet.

Calcium requirement

The RDA for calcium varies with age and sex. Adult men (19 - 70 yrs old) and women (19 - 50 yrs old) need 1000 mg daily. Women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70 need 1200 mg/day.

The connection between exercise and calcium and heart disease

To benefit bone health it is important to consume enough calcium and vitamin D and engage in regular weight-bearing exercise. To keep your heart healthy it is important to include aerobic activity in your workout plan. An exercise regimen that includes both aerobic activity and weight lifting is a great combination. If you have an injury ask your doctor for a referral to a physical therapist who has knowledge and expertise to create a plan for your unique health and physical abilities. Finally, a personal trainer can help you with an exercise plan and keep you accountable.

Consult your doctor

In certain situations a calcium supplement is necessary. Please consult your doctor if you have questions about calcium and heart disease. They can provide guidance about taking a supplement. Your doctor knows your medical history and can provide wise counsel.

The bottom line

When it comes to calcium and heart disease, strive to meet your needs by consuming calcium-rich foods as opposed to relying on calcium supplements.

This article was reviewed and updated by Joanna Kriehn, MS, RDN, CDE on May 13, 2020.

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Foods & Recipes->Dairy Foods Nutrients->Calcium Nutrients->Supplements
May 15, 2020

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