The Calcium Question
By Jennette Turner
We’ve been hearing a lot about bone health lately– from the dairy industry (all those celebrities with mustaches…), from supplement companies selling calcium pills, and from advertisements for calcium-fortified products (everything from cereal to antacids).
So calcium is being sold to us, like shampoo or new cars, but the problem is that we’re only being sold part of the story. Calcium is necessary for bone health, but is not the only factor. Other nutrients are equally important, like vitamin K, which is responsible for making osteocalcin, the protein matrix to which minerals attach to make bones (without vitamin K, your bones would be like chalk), and vitamin D, which is required for calcium to be deposited into bone tissue. Manganese, magnesium, zinc, the B vitamins and others, are all important in maintaining bone health. Quality fats are also necessary to metabolize certain nutrients, making them essential as well.
So the situation is obviously more complex than it seems. Calcium is assuredly important; it is the most abundant mineral in the body, and your heart, enzyme system, nervous system, blood clotting and muscle functions all depend on it, as do your bones. Like a mineral bank, bones store 99% of the body’s calcium, and when needed, it can be drawn out and used.
Lack of calcium contributes to thinner, weaker bones, which means that bones are more prone to fracture. But too much calcium can be just as bad. It can encourage kidney stones and gallstones, and without a strong collagen matrix from other nutrients, excess calcium can make bones brittle. It can also inhibit the absorption of iron and zinc and lead to magnesium deficiency (common in the U.S.).
The amount of calcium we need depends on many variables. With a low protein, whole foods diet, we don’t need more than 450 mgs. (the World Health Organization’s RDA). But with a diet high in refined carbohydrates and protein, like the Standard American Diet , a person may need up to 2000 mgs. to maintain equilibrium (the U.S. RDA is 800-1200). Unfortunately, we often take supplements without looking at how they fit into our diets. A person on a diet of whole foods and moderate protein can, if taking supplements, easily develop an excess. (Perhaps manifesting as kidney or gall stones, breast cysts or deposits in joints)
America consumes more calcium than most other countries in the world, but we have one of the highest rates of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition where normally dense bone tissue becomes less dense. As it progresses, bone mass becomes lower, bones become weaker and more porous, and the risk of fracture increases. We hear a lot about it now, but it hasn’t always been a problem. Only over the past 2 decades has it come to the foreground; in older medical texts it is barely mentioned. It seems to be a disease of our modern lifestyle and diet.
Why does this happen? One big reason is that our diets often drain calcium from our bones. This happens because of a process called ‘metabolic acidosis’. Our bodies have a delicate acid-alkaline balance that needs to be maintained at all costs. Excess acid in the blood, from acid-forming foods, requires immediate alkalinization. Your body does this efficiently by releasing calcium and other minerals from the bones.
Which culprits can cause this? Mainly refined carbohydrates and excess protein, both of which are acid-forming. Refined carbohydrate foods include all white flour products like breads, crackers, cookies, and pastas etc; white rice; and white sugar. They also include other highly refined sweeteners, like fructose, corn syrup etc. The more refined the carbohydrate is, the more deleterious it is for your health, especially your bones.
Protein is also acid-forming. It is a necessary nutrient, but in excess can drain calcium from the bones, especially if not balanced by a diet high in fresh vegetables. Milk, which is high in calcium, is also high in protein. And low-fat milk even more so. So calcium deficiency can even occur from excess dairy.
In our country we consume large amounts of refined carbohydrates and large amounts of protein. The result is bad news for our bones, especially since other common calcium-drainers include coffee, tea (even ‘healthy’ green tea), chocolate, soda pop, and other caffeine-containing products. Alcohol, smoking, and steroid drugs are other culprits, as well as some of the vegetables Americans eat most: potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. These ‘nightshade’ vegetables contain alkaloids which disturb calcium metabolism, which can worsen arthritic conditions, cause aches, pains, calcification of joints, and other problems.
Your best bet for building healthy bones is to eat a balanced diet based on whole foods, to avoid refined carbohydrates, and to eat a moderate amount of protein. Alkalizing foods are also essential, like vegetables (especially green ones), fruits, juices, sea vegetables, and quality condiments like miso, tamari and sea salt. ItÕs worth learning how to cook good quality food! Your tastebuds will thank you as much as your bones will.
And don’t forget that nutrition is not the whole story. Movement and stress on the bones is what makes them continually re-form, keeping them strong. Without exercise, bones lose mass.
If you are interested in learning more about bone health, the Wedge carries two great books that I highly recommend: Food and Our Bones, by Annemarie Colbin, and Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis, by Alan Gaby.
Jeannette Turner offers personal or group cooking classes. Contact Warren’ King’s office for this information.