Crunchy or chewy, calcium is still good

September 26, 1999|By Lisa Liddane | Lisa Liddane,Orange County Register

Looks like candy. Chews like candy.

But it's not candy.

Move over Tums, here come "calcium chews."

Mead Johnson's Viactiv and Nature Made's CalBurst -- supplements that can be munched like saltwater taffy -- are the latest products aimed at helping you meet your daily dietary requirement of calcium.

They're convenient, that's certain. But it's not a good idea to substitute them for natural calcium sources such as broccoli, spinach and milk, says a report from the American Dietetic Association.

"Foods contain many nutrients that work with calcium to keep your bones healthy," the ADA says. "If you rely on a supplement instead of eating foods that supply calcium, you may not get enough of other important nutrients."

That's also the message from a 1994 National Institutes of Health Consensus Conference on Optimal Calcium Intake.

Still, makers of calcium supplements say these products are a viable alternative because in reality, people just don't get enough calcium in their diet.

A continuing survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that nearly 90 percent of girls ages 12 to 19 aren't getting enough calcium to promote good bone health. Bones need a lot of calcium to grow.

One reason girls might not be getting enough calcium is that they're drinking less milk, according to the California Milk Advisory Board.

Girls 12 to 19 in the United States drink twice as much soda as milk. A girl consumes an average of 650 cans of soda every year -- 1.78 cans a day.

But girls aren't the only ones missing out on calcium. About 78 percent of women are calcium-deficient, the USDA report shows.

Insufficient calcium can be dangerous for females, because it puts them at risk for osteoporosis, a medical condition in which bones become more porous and brittle.

Other factors that increase osteoporosis risk include smoking, lack of exercise and excessive alcohol consumption.

Fragile bones in women can lead to hip fractures.

Postmenopausal Asian and American Indian women are at highest risk for developing osteoporosis, followed by Hispanic, Caucasian and black women, according to the National Osteoporosis Risk Assessment project, a study of 43,000 postmenopausal women.

A study funded by SmithKline Beecham, maker of Tums, showed that older women might benefit from calcium supplements. The study, published earlier this year in the medical journal Clinical Therapeutics, showed that if hip-fracture patients ages 50 and older consumed about 1,200 milligrams of calcium supplements per day for 34 months, they might have avoided 134,764 hip fractures and related medical costs of $2.6 billion in 1995.

A Mayo Clinic four-year study of 177 women ages 61 to 70 with no history of osteoporosis showed that women who took 1,600 milligrams of calcium a day had slightly higher bone density -- 1 percent more -- than women who took a placebo.

"The women who took the supplements also had lower levels of chemical indicators for bone resorption in their blood," a Mayo Clinic report stated. "Bone resorption is the opposite of bone formation and can lead to bone loss."

A calcium-rich diet and regular weight-bearing exercise help build strong bones, according to the ADA. People also need vitamins D and K, which help the body absorb calcium.

So which calcium supplement is better, tablets or chews?

From a taste standpoint, calcium chews Viactiv and CalBurst are less chalky and much easier on the palate than Tums tablets (which are also an antacid). CalBurst comes in chocolate and cherry flavors; Viactiv, in milk chocolate and mochaccino. Each chew contains 500 milligrams of calcium and costs from 13 cents to 16 cents each. One caveat: The chews tend to stick to the teeth.

Calcium supplements are available in a range of formulations.

Supplements are not made alike -- so it's important to read the label carefully, paying attention to the serving size and the amount of calcium, according to a Mayo Clinic report. Some brands list the amount of calcium; others give only total weight of the supplement.

To determine the calcium content in a supplement, the Mayo Clinic suggests the following formulas:

* Calcium carbonate: multiply by 0.4. Example: 500 milligrams of calcium carbonate multiplied by 0.4 equals 200 milligrams of calcium.

* Calcium citrate: multiply by 0.21.

* Calcium lactate: multiply by 0.13.

* Calcium gluconate: multiply by 0.09.

Take small doses, the Mayo Clinic report recommends. And take them with meals.

Drink water to minimize constipation.

Don't take more than the recommended amounts. Excessive calcium -- double or triple the recommended dose -- might increase your risk of developing kidney stones.

How much is enough?

How much calcium does a body need? The National Academy of Sciences in 1997 recommended these dietary reference intakes for calcium:

* 800 milligrams for girls and boys ages 4-8

* 1,300 milligrams for ages 9-18

* 1,000 milligrams for ages 19-50

* 1,200 milligrams for ages 51 and older.

But the National Institutes of Health Consensus Development Panel on Optimal Calcium Intake, aiming specifically at women, recommends more for certain groups:

* 1,200-1,500 milligrams for women and girls ages 11-24

* 1,000 milligrams for women ages 25-49

* 1,200-1,500 milligrams for pregnant/nursing women ages 25-49

* 1,000 milligrams for women ages 50-64 on estrogen therapy

* 1,500 milligrams for women ages 50-64 not on estrogen therapy

* 1,500 milligrams for women 65 years and older

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