Q: I take calcium carbonate, calcium hydroxide, calcium citrate, and calcium amino acid chelate in one pill. Do I really need all those types? And does taking a calcium pill contribute to calcium deposits in the arteries? — Barbara Pirolt, Alpharetta, Georgia
A: You don't need all those varieties, and you can rest easy about your arteries—as long as you don't take megadoses of the mineral. Calcium builds bone, of course, but it also performs other duties, like helping your muscles contract. So when your body runs short, it must pull the mineral from your skeleton, potentially weakening it and raising your risk of osteoporosis.
Getting enough calcium is key to protecting your bones. Good sources include dairy, small fish such as sardines (the calcium is in the tiny bones of the fish), and a wide variety of plant foods, like spinach, kale, figs, peas, beans, and nuts. Since most Americans fail to get enough from their diet, supplements can fill in the gap. (Women's diets average in the neighborhood of 700 to 800 milligrams daily; they need 1,000 milligrams between the ages of 19 and 50, and 1,200 milligrams over the age of 50.)
To help ensure that your body absorbs the mineral, look for calcium supplements containing vitamin D. And while some varieties of the mineral are easier for your body to absorb than others, the differences are negligible and definitely not worth fussing about.
As for your arteries, calcium is often part of the plaque that narrows and hardens blood vessels: The mineral lodges in areas of arteries where bad—LDL—cholesterol has caused damage. If your cholesterol is high, however, avoiding calcium won't save your arteries. And if your cholesterol is at healthy levels, you have nothing to fear when getting the recommended amounts. Just don't overdo it: Taking more than 2,000 milligrams from pills daily has been linked to calcium deposits in arteries and the kidneys. Fortunately, you don't have to worry about your diet—calcium from food doesn't seem to have this effect.