Women who consumed the most calcium from dairy products or supplements were 23% less likely to develop cancer than woman with the lowest consumption of calcium.
For men there was a 16% reduced risk in those who had calcium rich diets compared with those who ate the least of the mineral.
The study of almost 500,000 people was carried out by a team from the National Cancer Institute in America and is published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
In America the Institute for Medicine recommends that adults aged over 50 consume 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day while in the UK the Food Standards Agency recommends 700mg a day for adults.
Good sources of the mineral calcium include milk, cheese and other dairy foods, green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and okra, soya beans, tofu, soya drinks with added calcium, nuts, bread and anything made with fortified flour.
The researchers studied questionnaires filled in by subjects in 1995 and 1996 on their diets and supplement intakes and matched it to cancer databases until 2003.
Over an average of 7 years of follow-up, 36,965 cancer cases were identified in men and 16,605 in women.
Men who consumed 1,530 milligrams per day had a 16% lower risk of these types of cancer than those who consumed 526 milligrams per day.
For women, those who consumed around 1,881 milligrams per day had a 23% lower risk than those who consumed 494 milligrams per day.
The decreased risk was particularly pronounced for colorectal cancer and there was no effect seen on cancer outside the digestive system.
Lead author Yikyung Park, Sc.D., of the National Cancer Institute, said: "Dairy food, which is relatively high in potentially anticarcinogenic nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D and conjugated linoleic acid, has been postulated to protect against the development of colorectal and breast cancer.
"In conclusion, our findings suggest that calcium intake consistent with current recommendations is associated with a lower risk of total cancer in women and cancers of the digestive system, especially colorectal cancer, in both men and women."
Calcium has been shown to reduce abnormal growth and encourage normal cells growth in the gastrointestinal tract and breast.