Osteoporosis affects 24.5 percent of women over the age of 65 in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that same age group, osteoporosis affects just 5 percent of men. Why the discrepancy?
Some risk factors for osteoporosis are specific to or more common among women. First of all, osteoporosis is more likely among people with lower body weights and smaller frames, reports the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF). This body type is more common among women.
But the biggest risk factor is menopause. When a person goes through menopause, estrogen levels drop sharply, according to the CDC. This drop increases bone loss *and* reduces calcium absorption. In other words, all the calcium women consume may not be used by the body. Learn more about the connection between menopause and osteoporosis here.
How Much Calcium Do Women Need?
To counteract these risk factors among women, the Food and Nutrition Board (which establishes the recommended nutrient intakes for Americans) set higher daily intakes of calcium for women than men starting at age 51.
Why is calcium so important? This mineral is used for a number of bodily processes, from blood vessel function to secreting hormones. When your dietary intake of calcium is low, your body leeches the calcium stored in your bones in order to continue the vital functions. The calcium deposits in the bones and teeth help provide structure, and repeated leeching of that calcium increases bone loss.
According to the Food and Nutrition Board, Americans should consume the following amounts of calcium daily:
1,000 mg for all adults between 19 and 50 years
1,000 mg for men between 51 and 70 years
1,200 mg for women between 51 and 70 years
And 1,200 mg for all adults over the age of 71.
But even with these recs, women are still experiencing osteoporosis at higher rates. That’s partially because actual intakes are low. Among women, the average intake of calcium ranges from 748 to 968 mg a day, depending on the age group, according to the National Institutes of Health.
So, Should Women Take Calcium Supplements?
Health organizations like American Bone Health, the NOF, and the National Institutes of Health all agree: Calcium intake should be met primarily from real foods, not supplements. That’s because nutrient-rich foods provide a variety of vitamins and minerals that benefit the body in ways that a supplement can’t quite match.
Here’s an example: Humans only absorb about 30 percent of the calcium they consume, according to the National Institutes of Health. Research has found that vitamin D and other components (like phytic acid and oxalic acid) can help boost calcium absorption. And as a bonus, foods containing oxalic acid—like spinach and beets—provide other necessary things for good health, like fiber.
Dairy products like low-fat yogurt and skim milk are well-known examples of calcium-rich foods. American Bone Health also stresses the importance of non-dairy sources of calcium—such as bok choy, collard greens, broccoli, chia seeds, and almonds—which provide those other extra nutrients that improve calcium absorption and overall health.
That said, calcium supplementation may be necessary as a last resort for some individuals who may be vulnerable to malnutrition. For example, medical conditions like celiac disease or Crohn’s disease may affect calcium absorption, and factors like cancer treatment or dementia can cause a loss of appetite.