How Much Calcium Do I Need? You May Be Surprised
Half of all women age 50 or older will suffer a broken bone from osteoporosis according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Many older people have a Dowager’s hump and are hunched over from osteoporosis. The answer, according to our government’s recommendations, is to get more calcium from dairy.
Interestingly, our pursuit of more calcium from dairy and supplements may actually be increasing our risk of osteoporosis. In this article I will share 7 things you need to do now to have strong bones and I will answer the question, how much calcium do I need?
My Calcium Story
The milk industry had convinced me that I had to drink milk if I wanted healthy bones. I was convinced that “got milk” meant “got healthy bones.” My favorite was this commercial where Mr. Miller’s arms fall off because he did not drink his milk.
For years I tried to follow our government’s advice and get my 3 servings of dairy each day for calcium. Also, for the first 40+ years of my life I suffered from acid reflux.
When I was young I thought heartburn was “normal” so I never mentioned it to my parents. As an adult I would buy the “Costco packs” of omeprazole (Prilosec) to make sure I always had enough on hand for heartburn symptoms.
I also frequently got food stuck in my esophagus. I thought this was something I just had to live with as it was present from my earliest childhood memories.
In my early 40s, while racing to finish lunch prior to a surgery, I got a small bean stuck in my esophagus. I could not dislodge the bean. I was panicked because my nurse was paging me to start a surgery.
Fortunately, my partner was able to help me with the surgery as I needed an urgent endoscopy to remove the bean. I had the endoscopy done without any sedation so that I could finish my scheduled surgery. With the endoscope, my gastroenterologist could clearly see that my esophagus was severely inflamed, narrowed, and scarred from years of untreated eosinophilic esophagitis (EE).
I was put on a steroid and a high dose proton pump inhibitor. I was told that eosinophilic esophagitis is often due to food allergies and that it is difficult to find the cause.
Shortly after this time is when I hit my health crisis. As part of my health turn around, I cut out dairy, animal meat (I do eat fish regularly), processed foods, and dramatically reduced my sugar intake.
I’m not 100% sure what “cured” me of acid reflux and eosinophilic esophagitis but both conditions immediately went away when I changed my diet. I can tell you that when I have reintroduced dairy into my diet I often get heartburn again. I have suspected I have a food allergy to dairy even though I am not lactose intolerant based on my genetic evaluation.
For a period of time I even took calcium supplements to make sure I was getting my recommended 1,000 mg of calcium each day. When I started reviewing the data on calcium supplements potentially causing heart attacks, I then stopped taking these supplements.
Am I at risk of developing weak bones or osteoporosis?
How Much Calcium Do We Need?
Our government recommends 1,000 mg of calcium each day for adults. Older Americans need to target 1,200 mg.
Having enough calcium is critical for our bones and teeth. If there is not enough calcium, the body may pull it from our bones. Osteoporosis or weak bones occur when our bone mineral density is decreased. The milk industry has convinced us that dairy is the answer to preventing osteoporosis.
Interestingly, the U.S. and Northern Europe have the highest dairy intake in the world. Despite this high dairy consumption, the U.S. and Northern Europe also have the highest rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures. Is dairy really the answer to prevent osteoporosis and fractures?
Do We Really Need 1,000 mg of Calcium Daily?
Is 1,000 mg of calcium really our daily target? What will happen if we don’t reach this number?
Of course, there is a certain amount of calcium that we need each day in our diet. Studies of animals who are deprived of calcium consistently show that they develop osteoporosis.
When researchers have looked at this question they have been very surprised. Getting the targeted amount of calcium, either through dairy or calcium supplementation, does not decrease the risk of bone fractures. Surprisingly, some studies have even shown that getting more calcium may actually increase your risk of a bone fracture.
Non-dairy eating or lactose intolerant cultures, like Asia, typically get very low amounts of calcium in their diets. These cultures may only get about 300 mg of calcium each day in their diet. Indeed, in countries like China where 92% of people are lactose intolerant and dairy is rarely eaten, their risk of bone fractures is 6 times lower than the U.S.!
What Are the Best Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium?
Contrary to what the milk industry would have us believe, there are also natural non-dairy sources of calcium. For example, the following foods are all high in calcium:
1. Sardines and canned salmon
2. Sesame seeds
3. “Greens” (spinach, broccoli, kale, etc.)
7 Ways to Prevent Osteoporosis
If dairy and calcium supplements are not the answer to preventing osteoporosis, how can we prevent this debilitating condition? No one wants to walk hunched over with a Dowager’s hump. Let me share with you 7 things you need to do now to prevent osteoporosis.
1. Stay Physically Active
Physical activity is the best way to keep your bones strong. Weight bearing activities like walking, hiking, running, dancing, skiing, weight lifting, etc. are particularly important.
You would think that Tour de France cyclists would have exceptionally strong bones from all of their grueling training. Interestingly, world class athletes performing non-weight bearing sports, such as swimming or cycling, often have much weaker bones.
The same is true for astronauts. Within just a few days in space astronauts will lose 20% of their bone mass.
Gravity really is our friend. Weight bearing exercises are critical for bone health.
2. Get Enough Vitamin D
Vitamin D is critical for healthy bones. Studies show that your risk of osteoporosis is also determined by your latitude. For example, the farther you live from the equator the higher your risk of osteoporosis. Sadly, the strong media messages warning us of the dangers of sun exposure and skin cancer may actually be increasing our risk of osteoporosis.
Unfortunately, if you live in a higher latitude city, like me in Salt Lake City, it is simply impossible to get all of your vitamin D needs from the sun alone. There are some foods, like salmon, which are very high in vitamin D. Besides fish, other natural sources of vitamin D include milk, eggs, and mushrooms.
For most people living in higher latitude cities, vitamin D supplements are often required to maintain normal vitamin D levels during portions of the year.
3. Get Enough Vitamin K2
An often overlooked aspect of good bone health is vitamin K2. Most people have simply never even heard of vitamin K2.
The role of vitamin K2 is to put calcium in your bones and keep it out of your arteries where it can cause heart disease. Indeed, studies have shown that getting enough vitamin K2 in your diet not only strengthens your bones and teeth but also prevents heart disease.
The very best food source of vitamin K2 is natto or fermented soy beans. Natto is considered a delicacy in Japan. Perhaps this helps to explain why osteoporosis and heart disease are so much lower in Japan than the rest of the world. I am slowly learning to like natto and eat it now several times a week.
We can also get vitamin K2 from the conversion of vitamin K1 to K2 by our bodies. Foods high in vitamin K1 are greens like spinach, broccoli, and kale. Other foods high in vitamin K2 include liver, eggs from grass fed chickens, and some cheeses like gouda and brie.
To read more about vitamin K2 and see if you have these 9 signs of vitamin K2 deficiency, please read the article I wrote on this subject.
4. Get Enough Calcium
While our government recommends at least 1,000 mg of calcium daily for most adults, we really don’t know exactly how much calcium we need each day. As discussed above, some Asian cultures thrive on diets of just 300 mg of calcium daily. How much calcium you need is likely dependent on your diet and lifestyle.
If you do take calcium supplements, some studies suggest that calcium alone increase the risk of osteoporosis. Calcium supplements may be most beneficial if they are taken when you are also getting the right amount of vitamin D, vitamin K2, and vitamin A.
5. Avoid Very High Protein Diets
Although the science has not fully been worked out, some studies suggest that diets very high in protein may actually be weakening bones. Other studies have shown that the more protein some cultures eat, the more likely they are to suffer hip fractures.
6. Get the Right Amount of Vitamin A
Vitamin A is not only important for good vision but also for healthy bones. However, too much vitamin A, in the form of retinol, may also increase your risk of osteoporosis.
Eating liver or liver oil is a very well described cause of vitamin A toxicity. The other main cause of vitamin A toxicity is from taking supplements.
7. Avoid Soda Pop
Did your Mom tell you that soda pop was bad for your bones? It turns out that this advice may be true.
Many researchers feel that the phosphoric acid in soda pop alters the phosphorous/calcium balance in the body. Perhaps this is why many studies have shown that soda drinkers are more likely to have osteoporosis and fractures.
Have you also worried about getting enough calcium?
Please discuss how much calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, and vitamin A you need with your physician. Also, please work with your physician to minimize your risk of osteoporosis. Do not self diagnose or treat based on anything that you read in this article.