Have you ever tried to fill up a bath tub with the drain open? If you knew the drain was open, your answer is probably, “no”. But what if the drain was open and you didn’t even know. You would keep on filling up that tub, without actually ever filling it.
This is exactly what is going on with a particular mineral which is given much attention, Calcium. (More on this later)
Why did we get so obsessed over calcium? I believe that it is the work of the dairy industry who has spent millions of dollars in advertising to indoctrinate us into thinking that we should have our 2-4 servings of dairy per day as outlined by the Canada Food Guide and other nutrition models of “westernized” countries. We clearly do not need to consume these copious amounts of dairy, or even dairy at all. How do we know this? Seventy percent of the world population doesn’t consume dairy after they are weaned and have no issues with calcium deficiency.
The next obvious question then is, where do I get my calcium if not from dairy? I answer this question with another question…
…Game-changing question: where do cows get their calcium? (Because cows only drink milk until they are weaned)
The answer…grass. Lots and lots of leafy green vegetables called grass.
Green leafy vegetables are chock-full of calcium. There are also many other non-dairy sources of calcium. Here are a few examples:
- Collards (1 cup boiled) – 357 mg
- Rhubarb (1 cup cooked) – 348 mg
- Sardines (3 oz.) – 325 mg
- Spinach (1 cup boiled ) – 291 mg
- Turnip greens (1 cup boiled) – 249mg
- Black-eyed peas (1 cup cooled) – 211 mg
- Kale (1 cup boiled) – 179 mg
- Tahini (1 tbsp) – 64 mg
Calcium and Bone Health
One of the main concerns regarding calcium is it’s importance when it comes to bone health. Yes, our bones are made up of mostly calcium. However, it is way too simplistic to think that just because they are made of mostly calcium we can eat more calcium to make them stronger. That’s similar to thinking that if you want to build a bigger shed, you need to get more two-by-fours. It still takes nails, tape measures, drills, tools, and work to build that shed. Likewise the body requires multiple cofactors in order to assimilate the calcium into the bony matrix.
In westernized countries we consume the most calcium yet have the highest rates of osteoporosis. This should make us think twice about eating more calcium for better bones.
A 1987 study of 106 adult women suggested that calcium intake between 500 and 1,400 mg per day led to no difference in bone mineral densities. 3
A larger Italian study found that in women who consumed between 440 and 1,025 mg of calcium per day, a slightly increased number of hip fractures occurred with higher milk intakes. 4
The Real Problem
Picking up from the bathtub analogy at the beginning of this post, what is the real problem with calcium? Many people have their drains open. In other words, they are losing calcium and not able to maintain their stores for multiple reason.
1. Vitamin D deficiency: Vitamin D deficiency is an epidemic, due to fact that most people are indoors most of the year. I have every client get their vitamin D levels checked. Vitamin D is a critical hormone-like vitamin that plays many roles, but has a particularly important role in calcium metabolism. It is responsible for improving absorption of calcium from our food, reabsorbing it in the kidneys, and assimilating it into the bones and teeth. Without enough vitamin D we lose 30-80% of all calcium consumed.
2. Low stomach acid: The stomach is the beginning of the whole “digestive cascade”. A critical role of the stomach (specifically the parietal cells), is to secrete large amounts of hydrochloric acid (HCl). This release of HCl is critical for absorption of all minerals, particularly calcium. In fact, one of the risk factors associated with long-term antacid use is the risk of bone fractures (discussed in more detail here).
People are at risk for HCl deficiency if they have any of the following: over 40 years old, vitamin B3 deficiency, zinc deficiency, overly stressed, H. Pylori infection, or autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
3. Lack of exercise: One of the most important ways to maintain bone mass is to partake in regular physical activity. When you create resistance against the bone by contracting muscles, you create micro damages, which then stimulated the osteoblasts to build the bone back up stronger. What many people don’t realize is that the bone is constantly remodelling. Osteoclasts are breaking it down and osteoblasts are building it up.
4. Caffeine consumption: When I used to work at a the health food store, countless times middle-aged women would come in with a coffee in hand asking me where the calcium supplements were. Little did they know (until I told them) that the coffee they were currently enjoying was actually draining their body of calcium.
Coffee and other caffeinated beverages (cola and tea) have a diuretic effect which causes an increased release of urine and with that, minerals.
5. High stress: Every emotional state is matched by a chemical state in the body. Dr. Bernard Jensen, who saw over 350,000 patients in his lifetime taught that one of the quickest ways to acidify the body is to have negative thoughts. These chemical reactions have been called the “molecules of emotion” by neuroscientist and pharmacologist Candice Pert.
When the blood becomes acidic it will do whatever it can to maintain pH (it needs to stay in a very tight range of 7.35 and 7.45 pH), and the bones are an abundant source of minerals. These minerals can be liberated from the bone to increase the pH of acidic blood.
Not only do emotions affect the blood pH, but foods do as well. Sugar, bad fats, dairy, excessive carbohydrates, all increase the acidity of the body.
The Bottom Line
It is critical to make sure that your vitamin D levels are in the optimal range, digestion is optimal, you are exercising daily, diuretics are avoided, and stress is managed before even considering calcium supplementation.
You’ll also want to ensure you are consuming adequate amounts of the other nutrients needed for bone health such as boron, magnesium, silica, vitamin K, phosphorus, and many others. Many of these can be obtained from a whole foods diet.
- Hegsted DM. Calcium and osteoporosis. Adv Nutr Res 1994;(9);119-28. ↩
- Hegsted DM. Calcium and osteoporosis. J Nutr 1986;116(11);2316-9. ↩
- Riggs BL, et al. Dietary calcium intake and rates of bone loss in women. J Clin Invest1987;80(4):979-82. ↩
- Tavani A, et al. Calcium, dairy products, and the risk of hip fracture in women in northern Italy. Epidemiology (Italy) 1995; 6(5);554-7. ↩