Many people don’t realize but we are constantly remodeling our bones. The minerals are absorbed by our body whilst new bone is being created and new minerals are laid back down. If our body absorbs more minerals than it replaces, then over time our bones will become weaker.
We can all expect to start losing some bone mass after about age 35, but there are certain steps that we can take to help keep them as strong as possible. We must, of course, avoid smoking (no brainer) which is associated with bone loss and a multitude of other health problems, and we should regularly do weight-bearing exercises. We don’t have to go crazy and regularly moving through gravity, as in walking, is sufficient for most people. However, the most important aspect when it comes to bone health is our diet and it is in this area of nutrition that most people are slipping up.
Importance of calcium
Even though only 1 percent of the calcium in the body is found outside of the bone, this form of calcium is critical for many functions in the body and it is maintained within a narrow range in the blood and tissues. Calcium is essential for blood clotting, stabilizing blood pressure and contributes to normal brain function. It helps insulin open our cells to accept glucose, it is vital in the transmission of signals through nerves, and it facilitates the actual process of muscle contraction.
And then of course calcium helps us to build and maintain our teeth and our bones. Indeed, 99% of our calcium is stored in our teeth and bones. Our body can get its calcium through calcium-rich foods and supplements, or it can get it by drawing it from our bones. This is what happens generally when you haven’t been getting enough calcium from meals or if your diet is too acidic and the body has to use the minerals from your bones to buffer the blood. This is a common cause of osteoporosis.
Meeting your calcium needs
10 – 18 year-olds need about 1,300 mg daily, 19 – 50 year-olds need about 1,000 mg daily and those over 50 need about 1,200 mg daily. Of course, a major source of calcium is dairy foods such as low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt, however many of these products have been spoilt nutritionally by adding hormones, pasteurization and homogenization. Try and find organic sources that are more natural and ‘as intended’ by nature. If you are lactose intolerant, you may be able to get your calcium through lactose-free dairy products, by eating yogurt that contains live and active cultures, or by taking a lactase enzyme supplement before eating dairy.
Excellent non-dairy sources of calcium include leafy green vegetables such as collard greens, kalian, broccoli and kale, and canned salmon and sardines eaten with their bones.
Calcium supplements can also help you meet your needs but please see our warnings about over-consumption (below).
The Vitamin D connection
As your blood calcium level drops, vitamin D converts into its active form and travels to your gut to allow the absorption of more calcium. It also goes to your kidneys to reduce the amount of calcium lost to your body through urine.
Vitamin D comes from sardines, egg yolks, tuna, and fortified foods, though historically most people have been able to get enough vitamin D through sunlight exposure. In today’s world however, many are not getting enough sunlight exposure due to living indoors, living in high latitude and by hiding from the sun and using sunscreens due to cancer worries. If this is the case for you, you should certainly supplement daily up to 2,000 IU of vitamin D.
Other important foods
Another important nutrient helping in the regulation of calcium for our bones is Vitamin K2. Again it is found in foods such as leafy greens which reinforces how important this food type is to us. According to a 2001 “Nutrition” study, low levels of vitamin K circulating in the body were linked to low bone density and vitamin K supplementation helped support bone health. Research shows that eating at least 2 cups of vegetables and 1 ½ cups of fruit per day can increase your bone health, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (USA). Other important trace elements vital for bone health such as vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium are also found in leafy green veggies.
Another nutrient absolutely vital for the structural strength of bone is silica which although plentiful on earth is pretty hard for us to digest in most forms. Also, silica is the first nutrient to be lost during food processing and this is why many people have suboptimal levels. To make sure we are getting enough silica we should make sure we are regularly eating oats, barley, potatoes or whole-grain wheat. If you don’t regularly eat any of these then your health food shop can supply you with the common herb horsetail, an extremely rich source.
As far as protein is concerned, we know that your body needs some protein to build strong and healthy bones, but eating a very high-protein diet for an extended period can actually weaken your bones (Harvard School of Public Health). This is probably because most meats are acid-forming.
Dangers of calcium supplementation
For example, approximately 2 – 3 servings of dairy products or bone-in fish a day would be plenty to maintain adequate levels of calcium in the body (depends on your size). If you do have adequate levels of these nutrients, and regularly perform weight-bearing exercises, there is no need for calcium supplementation, which will likely do more harm than good.
Taking calcium as a supplement has become increasingly popular as osteoporosis has become more common. However, studies have shown that this can be dangerous as too much calcium causes serious side effects.
Excessive calcium has been associated with some pretty serious diseases. Studies on the relationship between calcium and cardiovascular disease (CVD) suggest that dietary intake of calcium protects against heart disease, but supplemental calcium may increase the risk. A large study of 24,000 men and women aged 35–64 years published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 2012 found that those who used calcium supplements had a 139% greater risk of a heart attack during the 11-year study period, while intake of calcium from food did not increase the risk. A meta-analysis of studies involving more than 12,000 participants also published in BMJ found that calcium supplementation increases the risk of heart attack by 31%, stroke by 20% and death from all causes by 9%.
Researchers suspect that the large burst of calcium in the blood that occurs after supplementation may facilitate the calcification of arteries, whereas calcium obtained from food is absorbed in slower rates and in smaller quantities than from supplements. It is also suspected that extra calcium intake above one’s requirements is not absorbed by bones, but rather excreted in the urine, increasing the risk of calcium kidney stones, or circulated in the blood, where it might attach to atherosclerotic plaques in arteries or heart valves.
Tips to help increase your calcium intake naturally
Amount of CalciumDairy & Soy products are calcium-richAim for 3 serves per dayAdd a layer of spinach to your lasagna½ cup of spinach (100g) = 50mg/ca. Add chickpeas or other legumes to casseroles, curries or salads.1 cup (200g) chickpeas = 90mg/ca Snack on almonds throughout the day or add some to your breakfast cereal.¼ cup (50g) almonds = 110mg/caMake a fresh orange juice3 medium oranges = 105mg/caLook out for fortified orange juices to help boost your intake.Choose Tahini as a dip and swap some of those crackers for broccoli florets2 tablespoon (40g) Tahini = 130mg/ca1/2 cup (60g) of broccoli = 18 mg/ca Baked beans are a great breakfast alternative or add them to your taco filling or nachos½ can (212g) baked beans = 72mg/ca Add plain yogurt to soups or curries.2 tablespoons low-fat natural yogurt = 122mg of calcium Have a reduced fat latte for morning teaA medium latte made on reduced-fat milk (400ml) = 506 mg /ca Swap your toast for a bowl of cereal with milk for breakfast250ml of reduced-fat milk = 352 mg/caLook out for fortified cereals to help boost your intake. Make a salmon salad for lunch or try a salmon, cream cheese and dill sandwich100g of tinned red salmon = 220mg/ca Make a fruit smoothie using strawberries, low-fat yogurt and skim milk1 cup strawberries (145g) = 19mg calcium1 std tub plain low fat yogurt (200g) = 316mg/ca1/2 glass reduced-fat milk (125ml) = 176mg/caAdd dried figs to your lunch box6 dried figs = 160mg/caUse tofu instead of beef or chicken in stir-fry recipes or consider using tofu in salads or soups.