Better Nutrition

Beware the calcium myth

The real truth about bone health

- By Vera Tweed

We need plenty of calcium for strong, healthy bones, especially as we get older— or so we’re told. While it’s true that the human body requires the mineral to grow and maintain bones and perform other functions, there are some very real dangers in getting too much. And skimping on other nutrients that are essential for calcium to be utilized by our bones can compound the risks.

“The real problem is not a lack of calcium in the diet, but rather a ‘ relocation’ of calcium from the bones to other areas of the body,” says Thomas E. Levy, MD, author of Death by Calcium. Studies show that excess levels of the mineral can end up in arteries, leading to coronary artery disease, heart attacks, and strokes, and may contribute to cancer and early death, says Levy.

Part of the problem is that any government calcium recommenda­tions ( 1,000 mg daily for most adults in the United States, and 700 mg daily in Europe) are intended to include all of an individual’s calcium consumptio­n— from food as well as supplement­s. But in practice, such amounts are often treated as daily minimums from supplement­s alone.

Doctors in this country frequently recommend supplement­ing with 1,000 mg of calcium, or even more when a patient has signs of osteoporos­is, without evaluating the actual calcium content of the individual’s diet. And convention­al medical care typically ignores other nutrients that are equally vital for healthy bones.

Vitamin C Surprise

Few people associate vitamin C with bones, but there is a vital connection. Scurvy isn’t considered a problem today but it can exist as “focal scurvy,” meaning that a specifi c part of the body is severely defi cient in vitamin C. This, says Levy, is very common in unhealthy bones.

“A focal bone scurvy initiates a severe loss in bone- building cells and an unchecked increase in bone- dissolving cells,” he says. Since bone is continuall­y turning over, such a vitamin C defi ciency produces bone loss. In addition, an overall vitamin C defi ciency poses two other problems, says Levy: Less calcium is deposited in bones, and more calcium is deposited in arteries and potentiall­y kidney stones.

Other Nutritiona­l Factors

Our bodies need a combinatio­n of nutrients to utilize calcium in bones and prevent harmful deposits in the wrong places. In addition to vitamin C, these include magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin K. Another mineral, strontium, prevents bone loss by increasing the growth of new bone cells while slowing breakdown of old ones, according to a study of postmenopa­usal women published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

On the fl ipside, phosphates that are added to colas, cheeses, and other processed foods promote calcium deposits in arteries, according to Austrian research published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine. Phosphates are preservati­ves that help control pH levels in foods. However, they also stimulate production of a calcium- regulating hormone called FGF23, and infl ated levels of the hormone lead to heart disease.

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