Sizing up your supplement

In an ideal world, it’s best to get your calcium from food, because it contains a complete package of nutrients that may help fight disease. Yet, it’s estimated that many women consume less than half of the daily recommended calcium intake. (You could be one of them if you frequently drink water or diet soda instead of milk at meals.)

If this sounds like you, consider taking a calcium supplement with vitamin D for added health insurance; vitamin D helps fine-tune calcium absorption. (However, if you have a personal or family medical history of kidney stones, first talk to your doctor.)

If you plan to go the supplement route, “use it to top off the calcium you get from your diet,” advises Robert Heaney, MD, a calcium researcher and professor of medicine at Creighton University in Omaha, NE. Heaney recommends taking 500 mg of calcium a day and trying to get the remaining 500 to 1,000 mg of calcium from food.

Calcium supplements come in different forms, such as calcium carbonate, Tums (a.k.a. calcium carbonate) and calcium citrate. Because all are absorbed more or less equally, your main concern when choosing a supplement and estimating how many supplements you need to take each day is how much pure, elemental calcium your supplement contains. Finding out is easy — just look on the nutrition facts on the label. Moreover, to make sure your body absorbs the maximum amount of calcium from your supplement, heed these ground rules:

• Take it with meals. Because food helps slow the rate at which calcium is absorbed in your intestine, take a calcium supplement with food, preferably with larger meals.

This will increase the amount of calcium your body absorbs from a supplement by 10 to 15 percent, says Dr. Heaney.

• Divide and conquer. Spread your supplement out in several doses. For example, if you’re taking 500 mg of calcium a day, take 250 mg at lunch and another 250 mg at dinner to increase the number of times your intestine is exposed to calcium. (You might do this by taking a multivitamin with calcium at lunch, and then taking a straight calcium supplement at dinner.)

• Aim for a name brand. Compared with store brands and small-time manufacturers, brand-name supplement makers generally have more knowledge and experience — and a professional reputation to protect. You may pay a little more for a name-brand supplement, but you’ll gain greater confidence that you’re buying a quality calcium product your body will absorb.