You hear a lot these days about the importance of preserving bone density and preventing osteoporosis, the most common cause of hip fractures in older women. Calcium is one of the minerals, along with phosphorus, which makes up your bones. When bone density drops below a certain level, bones become fragile and the risk for fracture goes up. People with osteoporosis may also experience compression fractures of the spine that lead to the collapse of vertebrae, loss of height, and a hunched over appearance known as a dowager’s hump.
Obviously, loss of bone density is a serious matter. Both women and men should be concerned about bone health, and getting adequate calcium is an important part of keeping your bones healthy. How much do you know about this mineral? Here are 5 common myths about calcium debunked.
Myth One: Plant Foods Don’t Supply Calcium
Most dairy foods are a good source of calcium, but even if you don’t eat dairy, you can still supply your body’s calcium requirements with plant-based foods although it is more challenging. For one, you can’t absorb the calcium from plant-based foods as readily as calcium in dairy foods. Plant foods contain fiber and a compound called phytic acid that binds to minerals like calcium and reduces their bioavailability. Therefore, you’ll need to eat more calcium-rich plant-based foods if you’re not consuming dairy. One of the best non-dairy sources of calcium is tofu and calcium-fortified soy milk. Other non-dairy sources of calcium include kale, broccoli, tempeh, white beans, almonds, and cabbage. Don’t forget many packaged foods are also fortified with calcium. Read the label to verify this.
Is milk really the best choice for meeting calcium requirements? A study carried out at Uppsala University in Sweden showed women who drank milk regularly actually had a GREATER risk for bone fracture and mortality rates were higher in both male and female milk drinkers. Another large meta-analysis showed drinking milk did NOT lower the risk for hip fractures in women. Why does this paradox exist? It isn’t clear, but based on this study it’s a good idea to diversify your calcium sources.
Myth Two: All Dairy Foods Are a Good Source of Calcium
Most dairy foods ARE a good source of calcium, but some are better than others. If your goal is to increase your calcium intake, the uber-popular Greek yogurt isn’t your best choice. Regular yogurt has three times the calcium of its Greek counterpart. On the other hand, Greek yogurt is higher in protein and lower in carbs, so it has other desirable health benefits. Maybe the solution is to eat some of both.
Myth Three: You Don’t Need Calcium Every Day
Your body can’t make calcium, so you must get it through diet or supplements. Plus, you’re constantly losing calcium through your skin, through feces, and by sweating. If you don’t get dietary calcium every day, you’ll have a hard time playing “catch-up” and could end up getting too little. How much do you need? About 1,000 milligrams daily if you’re under 50 and over age 19 and 1,200 daily after the age of 50. Try to get this amount every day.
Calcium is Only Important for Bone Health
Most people focus on the bone health benefits of calcium, but calcium plays other essential roles in your body. It acts as a signaling molecule in a number of pathways, including the release of some hormones. It’s also essential for blood clotting, muscle contractions and contraction of another important muscle – your heart. Although 99% of the calcium in your body is stored in your bones and teeth, the other 1% is critical to sustaining life. As a result, it must be closely regulated to keep it in a narrow range. Too much or too little calcium in your bloodstream has serious consequences, including death.
Myth Four: Most Women Need a Calcium Supplement
The idea of taking supplemental calcium is controversial. At one time, doctors routinely recommended that women take a calcium supplement for bone protection until a study linked calcium supplements with heart disease. In this study, published in the British Medical Journal, researchers followed almost 24,000 healthy, middle-aged and older adults. Those taking calcium supplements had 139% higher risk for heart attack. Getting calcium in dietary form is the way to go. Plus high doses of calcium, especially in supplement form, can interfere with absorption of other minerals, including zinc, iron, and magnesium. When you take high doses of ANYTHING you risk creating an imbalance. More isn’t better.
If you have osteoporosis or are at high risk for the disease, your doctor may recommend taking a calcium supplement. Don’t forget – calcium doesn’t act alone. Getting enough vitamin D, magnesium, and vitamin K2 are also essential for building and preserving healthy bones.
Myth Five: If You Take a Calcium Supplement, Take It Once a Day
First, check with your doctor and make sure you need a calcium supplement. It’s best to meet your calcium requirements through diet especially since research questions the safety of calcium supplements. If your doctor does recommend a calcium supplement, don’t take 1,200 milligrams all at once. Split it into 600 milligrams at one meal and 600 milligrams at another. If you take it all at once, you won’t absorb as much. Split it up. It’s best to take calcium supplements with food to maximize absorption, although you can take calcium citrate with or without food.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, this dispels some of the common myths about calcium, a mineral that’s essential not just for bone health but for life. With so many calcium-rich foods, you can meet your calcium requirements through diet with careful planning. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D since calcium and vitamin D work together to help keep your bones healthy.
The Washington Post. “Study: Milk may not be very good for bones or the body”
Nutr Hosp. 2015 Apr 7;31 Suppl 2:1-9. doi: 10.3305/nh.2015.31.sup2.8676.
New York State Osteoporosis and Prevention Program. “All about Calcium Supplements”
J Bone Miner Res. 2011 Apr;26(4):833-9. doi: 10.1002/jbmr.279.
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