The Calcium Conundrum

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There’s a calcium craze going on right now in this country.  In order to fulfill the lofty calcium RDA of about 1 gram per day, women everywhere are eating dairy like it’s their job. On top of that, people are supplementing extravagant amounts of the stuff in the form of  sugary, chocolatey calcium candies and pills. Despite all this, osteoporosis rates are not decreasing.

Here’s another paradox. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis and one of the highest rates of dairy consumption. Other countries of the world like Japan and South Africa have low hip fracture rates and relatively low dairy consumption rates. Beyond that, people lived with little to no osteoporosis for millions of years without dairy, or even calcium chews. There are dairyless groups of people out there who eat less than 400mg of calcium per day (note: no calcium gummies necessary) who have perfectly healthy bone density.

The fact is it actually takes many nutrients – not just calcium – plus protein, weight bearing exercise and sunlight (vitamin D) to grow bones. And even though dairy contains a lot of calcium, so do edible fish bones, dark leafy green vegetables and nuts.

Here’s the deal. The most important thing about calcium consumption (and where we so often go wrong) is that you keep what you eat. Dairy is an acid forming food in your body (so are grains and legumes), but calcium requires an alkaline environment to be absorbed properly. So if your body is acidic from eating too much dairy (and grains and legumes), you will leach calcium from your bones and excrete it in your urine. Goodbye calcium.

Another way you lose calcium is by eating grains and legumes (and too many nuts and seeds), which contain phytates. Phytates bind to calcium in your intestines and carry it out unabsorbed. To make things worse, taking in too much calcium can inhibit the absorption of magnesium, another very important nutrient for bone and muscle health.

Tips for Burly Bones

The following are some things you can do for optimal bone health, besides eating Paleo. All of these are common traits of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle:

  • Get out in the sun every day and/or take a vitamin D3 supplement (I recommend 1-2g per day). Vitamin D3 is necessary for calcium absorption.
  • Avoid chronic stress (easier said than done – I know) and blood sugar imbalances. Your body creates cortisol in response to both those things, and cortisol inhibits bone growth.
  • Do weight bearing exercise (weight lifting, CrossFit, rock climbing, hiking, stair climbing, etc.) at least three times a week. Muscle pulling on bone builds bone.
  • Caffeine increases calcium excretion, so go easy on it.