Twelve percent of the U.S. population will form a renal stone over their lifetime (Johnson et al., 1979), and it has generally been assumed that nephrolithiasis is, to a large extent, a nutritional disease. Research over the last 40 years has shown that there is a direct relationship between periods of affluence and increased nephrolithiasis (Robertson, 1985). A number of dietary factors seem to play a role in determining the incidence of this disease. In addition to being associated with increased calcium intakes, nephrolithiasis appears to be associated with higher intakes of oxalate, protein, and vegetable fiber (Massey et al., 1993). Goldfarb (1994) argued that dietary calcium plays a minor role in nephrolithiasis because only 6 percent of the overall calcium load appears in the urine of normal individuals. Also, the efficiency of calcium absorption is substantially lower when calcium supplements are consumed (Sakhaee et al., 1994).

The issue is made more complex by the association between high sodium intakes and hypercalciuria, since sodium and calcium compete for reabsorption at the same sites in the renal tubules (Goldfarb, 1994). Other minerals, such as phosphorus and magnesium, also are risk factors in stone formation (Pak, 1988). These findings suggest that excess calcium intake may play only a contributing role in the development of nephrolithiasis.

Two recent companion prospective epidemiologic studies in men (Curhan et al., 1993) and women (Curhan et al., 1997) with no history of kidney stones found that intakes of dietary calcium greater than 1,050 mg (26.3 mmol)/day in men and greater than 1,098 mg (27.5 mmol)/day in women were associated with a reduced risk of symptomatic kidney stones. This association for dietary calcium was attenuated when the intake of magnesium and phosphorus were included in the model for women (Curhan et al., 1997). This apparent protective effect of dietary calcium is attributed to the binding by calcium in the intestinal lumen of oxalate, which is a critical component of most kidney stones. In contrast, Curhan et al. (1997) found that after adjustment for age, intake of supplemental calcium was associated with an increased risk for kidney stones. After adjustment for potential confounders, the relative risk among women who took supplemental calcium, compared with women who did not, was 1.2. Calcium supplements may be taken without food, which limits opportunity for the beneficial effect of binding oxalate in the intestine. A similar effect of supplemental calcium was observed in men (Curhan et al., 1993), but failed to reach statistical significance. Neither study controlled for the time that calcium supplements were taken (for example, with or without meals); thus, it is possible that the observed significance of the results in women may be due to different usage of calcium supplements by men and women. Clearly, more carefully controlled studies are needed to determine the strength of the causal association between calcium intake vis-à-vis the intake of other nutrients and kidney stones in healthy individuals.

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