A recent study out of Sweden finds that taking in more calcium than your body needs actually slightly increases your risk for bone fracture. The Swedes have good reason to study this. They are one of the few countries with higher rates of fracture than the US, despite their love of all things dairy. Conventional wisdom has over-simplified the trend in bone health. As the population has developed increasingly fragile bones, the “go to” solution has always been more milk, more cheese, more yogurt. Even the pediatricians have been drinking this kool-aid. At every well-visit, parents get asked how much dairy their kids are eating and drinking for “good bone development”.
Yet, despite this love affair with dairy, the rate of fractures in the US is higher than most other countries. How can this be? We’re doing everything we can aren’t we? There is extra cheese stuffed in the crust of our pizzas and our kids are eating go-gurts like crazy. We’re even putting cheese in foods like Spam. How much more can we do?
Clearly, just blindly chugging milk hasn’t solved anything. The more relevant question is how to get all this calcium into our bones and keep it there. There are several factors that help bones hold onto calcium:
1. Weight-bearing exercise. Exercise increases circulation, which brings blood to your bones. If there is calcium in the blood, this gives the bones an opportunity to grab it. Bone reacts to physical stresses by strengthening. Regular exercise is a must.
2. Adequate vitamin D levels. Vitamin D affects parathyroid hormone, which affects bone resorption. Low vitamin D, more bone loss.
3. Too much protein. Our obsession with protein has a downside. No argument, protein is essential. However, protein releases acids which then are absorped by calcium. Therefore, too much protein uses valuable calcium that is no longer available to your bones.
Obviously, this list could be much longer. Nutrition science is complex and much of the time reductionistic advice is of limited value. But focusing on protein and calcium as isolated nutrients and not worrying about vitamins, minerals and fiber is silly. Only a few people in the US are calorially deficient. However, many people are nutrient deficient. We should all focus on eating our vegetables, especially the green leafy and cruciferous varieties. Sometimes the simple answer is the best one.