The Role of Calcium in Preventing Osteoporosis

It is an unfortunate truth that about ¼ of Western women will suffer some form of osteoporosis in their older years. The fact is, once we hit our 40th birthday, we start to lose bone mass.  We have heard since childhood that drinking milk helps to build strong bones and protects us from the onset of dreaded osteoporosis. But studies in recent years have delved deeper into the theory that drinking milk = strong bones and have come up with some controversial results.

Does more Calcium = Stronger Bones?


This is what we know for sure:  Women who live in countries where the highest amount of dairy products are consumed have the highest rates of osteoporosis. This disease afflicts women living in developed and urbanized areas.  Sadly, as many Asian countries have adopted a Western diet and lifestyle over the past few decades, their populations have seen an explosion in the rates of osteoporosis.

In most of Europe, the recommendation is that women consume around 1000 mg daily before menopause and 1500mg per day after menopause in order to prevent loss of bone mass. However, a large study  in Sweden showed that increasing calcium intake over 700mg per day did nothing to reduce the rate of osteoporosis, and may even put women at a higher risk by actually increasing the loss of bone mass. How can this be?

Factors that affect Calcium Absorption

Have you ever taken an antacid after a particularly rich meal (or a night of one too many glasses of wine?)  Our stomachs are not happy in an acidic environment. Generally speaking, most animal foods are acid forming and fruits and vegetables are acid neutralizing.  The calcium carbonate in your antacid acts as a buffer and helps to bring your stomach pH back to an alkaline level. Some researchers believe that calcium in our bodies work on this same principal. In other words, when we eat acid forming foods, our body borrows calcium from our bones to neutralize the acid in the stomach. Over time this results in a loss in bone mass and increased risk of osteoporosis.

Following this theory, it would be counterproductive to rely on dairy foods (milk, cheese, and yogurt) as our primary source of calcium, since milk is an acid producing food. This was shown In the Swedish study mentioned above. The women met their increased calcium needs by upping their dairy food intake, which did nothing to reduce their risk of osteoporosis and increase bone mass.

OK, so why don’t we just take a daily calcium supplement? Not so fast! Calcium supplements, once prescribed to nearly every woman over 50, now come with a strong word of caution. Several studies show that calcium supplements increase your risk for painful kidney stones. What is worse, a large German study even showed that taking calcium supplements put women at a significantly increased risk for heart attacks! Excess calcium can build up on your arterial walls and lead to plaque formation and narrowing of arterial walls that can choke off the blood supply to your heart.

So, what are we supposed to do to reduce our risk of osteoporosis?  The most prudent advice is to limit our intake of acid forming foods (all animal foods) and increase our acid neutralizing foods (fruits and vegetables). Between 450-900g of vegetables and 2 pieces of fruit per day is optimal.  We can also try to get some of our calcium from non-animal sources. Some of the best sources of calcium are sesame seeds, tahini, chickpeas, all dark green vegetables, soybeans, and almonds.

Also, let’s not forget the important role Vitamin D plays in bone health.  Just 15 minutes of sun exposure 3 times per week allow your body to produce all the vitamin D it needs.

Be careful about taking vitamin, mineral, and other supplements, unless your doctor has prescribed them for you to correct a nutritional deficiency. After more than a decade of faulty advice to consume mega doses of nutrients through supplements, we are now starting to learn that’ supplements are often found to do more harm than good. Our best option is also the simplest, to rely on real food for our good health.

Dora Meyer, RN, BSN, MSPH
To learn more about me, please visit my website at www.healthy-start.net

Sources for this article:

http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d1473,
http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/26/news/la-heb-calcium-20110526
http://www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com/alerts/osteoporosis/protein-osteoporosis-prevention_5826-1.html
http://www.news.cornell.edu/chronicle/96/11.14.96/osteoporosis.html
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18065599

One Response

  1. Thanks Dora, for this very current information. Liz

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