Tag Archives: calcium

The Calcium Controversy: Does milk really do a body good?

By Melissa Furneaux, B.Sc., HHC, RHN

Most of us have grown up with the firm belief that milk is an important part of a balanced diet, and absolutely necessary for strong bones and teeth. This idea is so ingrained in our culture that most of us do not so much as question it; it is common thought that if we want to avoid osteoporosis in our later years, we need to drink hefty amounts of dairy now. But is this really the case? Like so many nutritional controversies, it turns out that this situation is rather complicated. So let’s begin with the basics…what exactly is calcium, and what does it do in the body?

Calcium is a macro-mineral, and it is also the most abundant mineral in our bodies, accounting for about 1.5-2% of our body weight. Almost all of it, around 98%, is in our bones; another 1% is in our teeth, and the final percent is in and around our cells. While calcium is certainly best known for its role in bone health, it is actually involved in many functions throughout the body, including muscle contraction and heart regulation, nerve conduction, cell communication, blood clotting, and enzyme regulation, just to name a few. There’s no denying that we need adequate amounts of calcium to stay healthy. However, is the commonly recommended 2-4 servings of dairy each day an appropriate guideline?

Without going into detail, let’s just say that the influence of the dairy industry is far-reaching, its pockets vast, and their advertisements psychologically brilliant. The “Got Milk“ campaign, for example, is one of the most successful, long-running advertising campaigns of all time. If we step back from the politics, however, and take a look at the science, we can see that it is quite well-documented that greater dietary calcium intake does not correlate with stronger bones. On the contrary, if we look at global dietary consumption of dairy, we will find an inverse relationship between osteoporosis and dairy consumption. Yes, you read that correctly…as a general rule, the nations that drink the most milk also have the highest rates of osteoporosis. In addition, researchers have consistently found a direct correlation between animal protein intake and loss of bone mass. While we must be cautious to not make any conclusions based on this correlation alone, it does suggest that perhaps there is more to bone health than meets the eye.

As with all nutrients, it is not simply a matter of how much calcium you have in the body, but rather what your body is able to do with it. We know that our society isn’t lacking in calcium. So how can these counter-intuitive facts be explained? It seems that what we have is not a problem of calcium deficiency, but one of calcium absorption. The human body is complicated and dynamic, with systems and substances working synergistically…nothing occurs in isolation. Our bodies are constantly trying to maintain stable levels of calcium in the blood. If our bodies become too acidic, due to excess animal protein, stress, a high intake of carbonated soft drinks, or any variety of other reasons, calcium will be leached from our bones to help buffer acidity in the rest of the body. In effect our bones act as somewhat of a “mineral bank.”

There are many diet and lifestyle factors that either promote or inhibit calcium absorption, and unfortunately when it comes to the so-called “Standard American Diet, the scales are definitely tipped against us. A few common substances that interfere with absorption include: caffeine, soft drinks, diuretics, excessive meat/protein consumption, refined sugar and concentrated sweeteners, alcohol, cigarettes, other intoxicants, and excess salt. Many of these substances are high in phosphoric acid, or other acidic substances that create imbalance in the body. In addition to these substances that hinder absorption, there are other factors that must be present for absorption to take place at all. Most notably, these include vitamin D, magnesium, healthy parathyroid hormone functioning, and another hormone called calcitonin. The situation is even further complicated by the fact that vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient, meaning that the calcium in fat-free products is more difficult to absorb.

I am commonly asked “If I give up milk, where will I get my calcium from? As it turns out, there is a huge variety of non-dairy sources available, primarily our “beans and greens.” Many leafy greens are excellent sources, particularly kale, mustard greens, and bok choy. There are a few greens, such spinach and collards, that while being excellent sources of calcium, should be cooked to increase calcium bioavailability (due to the presence of oxalic acid). Many legumes are also excellent sources, including soy beans, tofu, adzuki beans, peas, and pinto beans. Sea vegetables, such as hijiki, nori, kombu, wakame, and kelp are also excellent sources. Other foods that contain calcium include brazil nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, bones (either eaten directly or used to make soup broths), and some dried fruits such as apricots. Many people choose to supplement their diet with calcium, although in my opinion this is somewhat missing the mark, again focusing on quantity over quality.

In the end, it is safe to say that this issue is complicated, and that the debate over milks purported health benefits and consequences will likely not be ending anytime soon. While milk is an excellent source of calcium, it is becoming increasing clear that their are a number of potential problems associated with milk and dairy intake as well…we have not even touched on the fact that approximately 70% of the world is lactose intolerant, that it is one of the most common dietary allergens in North America, and that it is not appropriate for many people due to ethical or religious reasons. Ultimately, however, it comes down to personal choice. If you choose to include milk in your diet, try to buy local and organic, if possible, as the quality of the product will be much better, and you will also be supporting more sustainable farming methods in your community.

Melissa Furneaux , Registered Holistic Nutritionist is available for workshops and private consultations at Alchemy & Elixir Health Group in Vancouver BC.

Choosing The Best Calcium Supplement

Choosing the best calcium supplement requires the skill of filtering through endless marketing choices coupled with some basic education on calcium terminology.

Calcium is a mineral required for the activation of several enzyme functions throughout the body and optimal function of all body processes. Calcium is known as a coenzyme required for regulating the heartbeat and blood pressure, the normal contraction of muscles, prevention of cardiovascular disease, for conduction of nerve impulses, is involved in blood clotting, maintaining strong healthy bones and teeth and helps to prevent the absorption of lead.

Calcium is blended with other compounds to form a pill, There are numerous types of calcium on the market, from bone meal, oyster shell calcium and calcium carbonate, coral calcium, chelated calcium, calcium phosphate, calcium gluconate, calcium lactate and calcium citrate; even TUMS has been marketed as a calcium supplement….whoooah..overload!!! Which type does one choose?

Types of Calcium in Supplements

  • Calcium citrate is currently the best type of calcium on the market and is easily absorbed. It can be taken anytime during the day, even on an empty stomach, although I generally recommend taking Calcium Magnesium pills at bedtime to enhance sleep and relaxation.
  • Oyster shell calcium, bone meal and dolomite: these naturally occuring calciums may contain heavy metals, including lead, and have a low absorption rate.
  • Coral Calcium has been associated with many cure-all claims, (to me, this is always a sign to be a little wary) and is essentially a calcium carbonate supplement, one not well absorbed by the body!
  • Contrary to brilliant marketing…TUMS is not an adequate calcium supplement. In fact, this is a terribly misleading claim…First, the calcium found in TUMS is a carbonate source, not well asorbed by the body; plus TUMS is an antacid (antacid= it decreases the amount of hydrochloric acid in the stomach), ironic though… that our body requires adequate levels of hydrochloric acid (stomach acid) for any calcium absorption to occur. So even though TUMS contains calcium, be-it a source already poorly absorbed, the fact that TUMS functions to neutralise stomach acid renders the calcium almost useless to the body.
  • Calcium lactate and calcium gluconate: These products contain a low content of elemental calcium. Thus large dosages of these products are required to meet the daily recommended allowance.

Other Minerals in a Calcium Supplement?

1. Always take Calcium together with Magnesium.The mineral, magnesium, is a catalyst enzyme used to ensure that all the calcium absorbed into the bones, stays in the bones…A lack of magnesium interferes with nerve and muscle message relay and deficiencies can cause muscle weakness, muscle twitching and symptoms of PMS. A high consumption of meat, increased amounts of Vitamin D and Zinc all increase the bodies need for magnesium.

2. Vitamin D: known as the sunshine vitamin, one of the only vitamins the body cannot manufacture on its own.Stimulates absorption of Calcium.

3. Zinc: a mineral involved in the absorption of Calcium.

4. Boron: A trace mineral used for healthy bones and muscles, assists the metabolization of calcium and magnesium. Studies indicate that boron can help prevent post menopausal osteoperosis and build muscle.

These trace nutrients can assist the absorption of calcium, helping this mineral stay in strong healthy bones -where it belongs.

How Much Calcium to Take?

The National Osteoporosis Foundation and the National Acadamy of Sciences recommend the daily allowance (RDA) of calcium at 1000-1200 mg daily for adult men and women.

For a pill to contain this dosage unit, it would be very large and difficult to swallow, thus it is necessary to take 3-4 pills per day to meet the recommended daily allowance.

Fast Facts on Elemental Calcium

Always identify the amount of elemental calcium, (found by reading the fine print on the label) when choosing a calcium pill.

Labelling is often misleading, the elemental calcium is the actual amount of calcium that your body can absorb, and it is always lower than the total calcium. Avoid getting mislead by labels, some manufactures do not even identify the elemental calcium amount on the label and unless you are educated about the elemental calcium level, it would appear that you are getting a higher amount of calcium than you actually are.

If the product label does not identify the elemental calcium levels, then choose another brand!

For example, a pill containing 500mg of Calcium Carbonate provides 200mg of elemental calcium. Hence one pill, in this example, only provides 200mg of calcium, not 500mg… Meaning that you would need to take 5-7 pills daily (not 2-3 pills) to reach the daily RDA of 1000-1200 mg.

For more information on quality calcium magnesium supplements visit our online holistic health market at Alchemy & Elixir Health Group

~ written by Katolen Yardley, MNIMH, Medical Herbalist