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Healthy Bones and the Calcium Paradox

June 10, 2014

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If you’re like most Americans, you were raised to believe that drinking milk led to strong, healthy bones. Indeed, in the Western world the language of bone health has one core narrative:  Eat plenty of calcium-rich dairy products, supplement with calcium, lift some weights, and you're good to go.

Unfortunately, the Western approach to bone health ignores the fact that creating bone density involves complex nutritional mechanisms, and dairy alone won't necessarily protect you from osteoporosis.  In fact, studies have shown that too much calcium can do more harm than good by increasing the risk of bone fractures! The reason for this counterintuitive notion can be boiled down to one thing: collagen. 

Calcium’s Counterpart

If the problem posed by osteoporosis is increased rate of fragility fractures, let's take a look at your bone composition to better understand the real risk. Bones are both hard from calcium phosphate salts and flexible from the collagen matrix. The collagen matrix, a latticed protein structure, is massively important because it acts as the scaffolding for the bone. Consider this: a bone with little to no calcium will bend and a calcium-rich bone without any collagen will break.  

The key to building strong, flexible bones, nutritional experts say, is to consume nutrients that work in synchronicity with calcium to increase its absorption, as well as nutrients that support the collagen matrix. The sources are plentiful: vitamin D absorbs calcium from the small intestine, phosphorus helps to mineralize bones and teeth, protein and vitamin C stimulate the collagen matrix of bones, magnesium increases calcium absorption from the blood, and vitamin K stimulates bone growth and increases bone flexibility. Potassium indirectly aids bone health by neutralizing acids that remove calcium from the body. 

Bone-Building Foods 

So there was something to the notion that calcium-rich milk can help your bones, but dairy isn’t the magic potion for bone health. Besides dairy, you can find ample sources of calcium in dark leafy greens, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, small fish, and sea vegetables. Ounce per ounce, vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, parsley, rutabaga, turnip greens, and watercress pack twice as much of a calcium punch than dairy.

Almonds, sesame seeds (yes, hummus counts!), pinto beans, and sweet potatoes are also great calcium options and sushi lovers will be pleased to know that seaweeds like nori (used in sushi rolls) and wakame (found in miso soup) are reliable calcium donors. 

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Among animal proteins, soft-shell crabs, oysters, sardines, and anchovies are great sources of calcium. You can also add to your calcium intake with special broths! Try making a broth by saving the bones from your whole roast chicken (organic and pasture-raised, of course!). Remember to include a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to release the minerals. Vegetable stocks made with a stick of kombu seaweed are mineral-rich and full of calcium, as well. 

It's never too late to include the full complement of bone-building nutrients to maintain the strength and integrity of your bones. Start by adding in two or three bone-density enhancers to your diet— drink mineral or lemon water to alkalize your blood,  snack on sunflower or pumpkin seeds for their minerals and natural fats, sautée some kale and arugula for dinner. Of course, avoid refined sugars and white flour products, which can interfere with the absorption of protein, calcium, and magnesium, according to Annmarie Colbin, author of The Whole Foods Guide to Strong Bones.

Sheila Datt is a certified health counselor and IIN graduate from the class of 2012.  She started Fresh Health Designs to support women as they journey through their peri- and post-menopausal years, helping them achieve stress reduction, hormonal balance, digestive strength, and bone health. For the past 10 years, she has been a chef who cooks dinners for numerous families in Fairfield County, CT.  She can usually be found gathering as much organically-raised food as possible at Whole Foods and farmers markets.