Shattering an age old myth about diet and bone health
Written by Sydney Cobb
Calcium has long been heralded as a champion of healthy bones, especially for the elderly. Recent studies shed some light on the correlations between calcium intake and bone fractures, and the results are unexpected. Surprisingly, calcium does not make as much of a difference as we once thought. In fact, too much calcium may actually prove detrimental to health.
According to the British Medical Journal, “dietary calcium intake is not associated with risk of fracture, and there is currently no evidence that increasing calcium intake prevents fractures.1” These findings unearthed that increased calcium intake may provide an extra 1-2% of bone mineral density, or strength, but these benefits are negligible and will not prevent bone fractures2. Calcium is still a necessary element in our bodies, but too much calcium can become a problem. It is a matter of finding the right balance.
Currently, the FDA recommends 1000-1200 mg per day of calcium for strong and healthy bones. That’s a lot of calcium. To get the recommended amount in your diet, that’s roughly four cups of milk or five cups of spinach every day. Too much calcium can actually put you at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, especially strokes and heart attacks. Excess calcium can also result in kidney stones, mood disorders, and muscle and abdominal pain3. Many of these risks are decreased when the calcium is consumed naturally, as opposed to additional calcium found in fortified foods and supplements.
So what can you do to find the balance—to keep your bones strong and risk low? Luckily, there are a few ways to ensure that calcium stays helpful, not harmful.
Problems like heart attack and muscle pain are suspected to be the result of calcium that builds up and collects in vessels. Supplements provide raw calcium that our bodies cannot readily absorb, so the calcium accumulates and starts to block normal functions3,4. When our calcium intake comes through food, our bodies can break the food down and the small intestine is able to absorb all the vitamins and nutrients naturally and safely.
Vitamin D and calcium work together.Without enough vitamin D, calcium cannot be absorbed and bones weaken. This means that, in the absence of vitamin D, even the calcium that we ingest in our normal diets is somewhat put to waste. Instead of just focusing on calcium intake, it’s important to monitor vitamin D intake as well to ensure that the calcium we eat is actually absorbed. Too much vitamin D can trigger too much calcium absorption, so too much of either can be a bad thing; but when we consume normal amounts of both vitamin D and calcium through a healthy diet, they provide us with optimum bone health.
Focus your diet on foods that provide natural sources of calcium, like spinach, broccoli, and kale (most green vegetables are a surprisingly rich source of calcium). Dairy products also provide lots of calcium and are sometimes even fortified with vitamin D5. Listen to your body and go to the doctor regularly to see if you are at higher risk for diseases like osteoporosis. If you’re eating a healthy, balanced diet, there’s no need to worry.