Calcium Myths

Let’s continue our nutritional quiz by taking a closer look at calcium.

Calcium Myths

People generally think that they need calcium in their diet (and they are right), but they also think that they need a lot of calcium and that milk is the only way to get enough (and that is not so much right).

There are many reasons why you might want to consider removing milk and milk products from your diet. Studies are starting to show just what kind of negative impact our love affair with the cow has on our health and even on our bones. When I suggest to people that they stop milk, I can almost guarantee that the next thing out of their mouths is, “yes, but where do I get my calcium?”

There response speaks to the power, effectiveness, and tragedy (for our health) of advertising.

My answer to their question of where do you get enough calcium is to ask another question: “Where do cows, moose, and even elephants (who all have very strong bones) get their calcium if all they eat is grass?”

Foods high in calcium

While you might think that the only good source of calcium is milk, there are others. Yes, milk does contain calcium (1 cup has 296 mg of calcium), but milk is, by far, not the only good source of calcium. Take a look at these other foods:

  • Sesame seeds (1 cup = 702 mg)
  • Flax seeds (1 cup = 416 mg)
  • Cabbage (1 cup = 380 mg)
  • Collard greens (1 cup = 266 mg)
  • Spinach (1 cup = 245 mg)
  • Orange (1 cup = 104 mg)
  • Kale (1 cup = 94 mg)
  • Broccoli (1 cup = 62 mg)

What the Doctor Says

If you check with your medical doctor, they often give you the advice that people don’t get enough calcium. It is probably because of our doctor’s advice that calcium is the fourth most consumed supplement taken in the United States. Not only do calcium pills fly off the shelves, but you can also get calcium in your cereals, breads, soy drinks and even in your orange juice and chocolate bar.

But of all the nutritional guidelines a doctor might want to recommend, calcium makes the least sense.

How Much is too Much?

It is very common for doctors to suggest that you get 1200 mg of calcium every day, but where is the precedence for this? Where in our past history have humans consumed that much calcium? The answer is: nowhere. Imagine the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, or Native peoples around the world spending all their days gathering calcium in order that every person receives their 1200 mg a day. It just didn’t happen.

Where does this 1200 mg a day suggestion come from? It comes from research that shows that 1200 mg is the amount of supplemental calcium you need in order to increase the density of you bones.

And yes, it is true, if you supplement with that much calcium, you will increase your bone density. But here is the real question: does it really make any difference to your health to supplement with that much calcium?

Bone Research

A funny thing happened in the bone research lab.

Scientists wanted to find a way to reduce bone fractures, so they started to look for ways to make bones stronger, but the only way they could measure osteoporosis is through a bone density test. What they found out what was that supplementing with calcium did indeed make bones denser, but no one (until recently) questioned whether supplementing with that much calcium made any difference to bone fractures.

Here are the results of a study done in 1986:1

Picture2

Yes, supplementing with calcium did increase bone density, but it does not reduce bone fractures. As you can see from the chart above, the countries with the most calcium consumption have the largest chance of hip fractures. Why is this?

Too much calcium in the bones actually makes bones more brittle. So you get denser bones when you supplement with calcium, but you are just as likely to break those bones as you were before you 30-year, 1200mg-a-day, odyssey.

More Studies on Milk

But it doesn’t stop there; more studies show that milk and calcium have an effect on fractures (but the opposite of what our milk education said it would).

For example, a 12 year study in 1997 that followed 77,000 women showed that women who drink 2 or more glasses of milk are actually almost 50 percent higher risk of fracture than those who don’t drink milk.2.

How to Get Enough Calcium

Stop focusing on calcium as your source for good and healthy bones. The health of your bones has more to do with other factors than it does with how much calcium you can shove into your mouth.

Here is how to optimize your bone health:

  • Calcium: Get your calcium from foods. This means that you eat more green leafy vegetables.
  • Vitamin D: Make sure you get enough vitamin D. This will be the subject of a future post, but for now, get outside as often as possible and you might have to think about supplementing.
  • Exercise: Yes, you have to get out and move your buns around.
  • Foods: Both high salt and high phosphorus (found in soda) leach calcium out of your body.
  1. Hegsted DM. Calcium and osteoporosis. J Nutr. 1986 Nov;116(11):2316-9. []
  2. Feskanich D. et al. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. Am J Public Health 1997;87(6);992-7. []

21 comments

  1. I never took calcium pills… I always suspected as much… I think if we eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, we will get the correct nourishment, in the correct ratios and amounts. And what’s wrong with THIS picture: we are the only specie that consumes milk after weaning, that of another specie, and boiled ! …like BOILING something doesn’t drastically alter it on a molecular level…!

  2. What rubbish!
    The reason that you cannot get enough calcium from milk is because the calcium is bonded with carbon, as in calcium carbonate. Its the carbon that leaches calcium from your bones etc, therefore causing a net loss of calcium in your body.
    Artificial supplements also are only calcium carbonate. Just check the ingredients if you dont believe me. Carbon, as food is very damaging to the human body, causing not just osteoporosis but other joint problems too.
    You can only get real calcium from food such as green veg. It is perfectly balanced with other minerals etc for calcium to be absorbed in the body.
    Isnt it obvious that the nation that takes the most (calcium) supplements, has the highest bone density problems.
    No milk or dairy foods, or supplements. Just good green veg once or twice a week.. Healthy bones.
    Rob.

  3. Very informative! I learned a lot about calcium today than my one semester in college. The info here are direct and easy to digest. Hope to read more of these kind of blog.

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