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Calcium: The Craziness Begins

Posted Aug 02 2010 1:20pm

by Barbara Berkeley, MD

Have you ever felt like making the right dietary choices was more like crossing a minefield?  One day you are strolling along, sure that you are on the path to righteous wellness.  Then BAM!  the landscape changes and you find that you are in mortal danger.  This week, an announcement that villainized calcium supplements was just such a land mine.  Millions of women take these supplements. They've been sacrosanct.  For doctors, recommending calcium pills seemed like a no brainer and most were happy to give such easy, and seemingly important instruction.

But a few days ago, the British Medical Journal announced that healthy older women who take calcium supplements appear to have as much as a 30% greater chance of suffering a heart attack than those who do not.  This conclusion was based on a review of 12,000 women and was consistent regardless of the type of supplement used.  In the wake of this news, TV health pundits were already distancing themselves from calcium pills.  ( CBS News Video )

Once again, real food proved the winner.  Women who got calcium by diet alone had no such risk. For almost any nutrient you can name, food sources provide the safest means of consumption.  As most of you regular readers know, I don't think much of supplements.  In fact, I stopped taking calcium long ago.  For years, that has been my guilty secret. All of a sudden I'm looking like a clairvoyant.

One would think that the big news here is the danger of calcium pills (it’s hypothesized that they may accelerate hardening of the arteries).  But in fact, there are two other elements that are well worth examining.  The first is the conclusion of this and other studies that taking calcium supplements doesn't prevent osteoporosis (why were we all taking the blasted things then??). The second is the fallout that will occur as a result of this, the latest nutritional bombshell.

The editorial that accompanies the British Medical Journal study said:

"Calcium supplements, given alone, improve bone mineral density, but they are ineffective in reducing the risk of fractures and might even increase risk, they might increase the risk of cardiovascular events, and they do not reduce mortality. They seem to be unnecessary in adults with an adequate diet. Given the uncertain benefits of calcium supplements, any level of risk is unwarranted."

Once again, the news that stuns here is that calcium pills never did reduce fracture risk.  Undoubtedly, we would have continued to pour endless dollars into these supplements (just as we do into taking all sorts of fancy, unproven vitamin supplements) had this particular study not gotten big media play.

But in fact, the biggest story in the calcium saga may yet be unwritten and may come from the whiplash that occurs as a result of our rush to get calcium from something other than a pill.  Because we change our diets based on the daily proclamations of science, our eating habits are as fickle as a passel of runaway brides. One change often ripples out to create a host of others.  Remember this one? In the 1990's various researchers declared that fat was the enemy.  The result?  An entire country loaded up on fat free products. In our headlong rush to avoid fat, we vastly increased consumption of carbohydrates and sugars. We soon became increasingly more obese and diabetic. Read some Frontline interviews on the Fat Free Years  

We are only a few days into the calcium story, but already we are being advised to get more calcium via foods.  That seems like great advice, but the type of food is not being examined much.  Nor is the fact that many of the countries with the world's highest rates of osteoporosis have the highest calcium intakes.  No doubt, cartons of milk, chunks of cheese and anything made with soy will soon sport attractive labels that remind us that these foods contain calcium.  Will we stop and think about rushing to increase our consumption of these foods?  I doubt it.  Most  people (and I include health professionals) believe that all we need to do is plug the latest hole, in this case calcium.  The fat free experiment should have taught us something, but I guarantee....it hasn't.

We will probably start running to soy (many soy products are fortified with calcium) and dairy for our calcium.

Fortified soy milks and cheeses have been promoted as healthy alternatives for those who can't tolerate milk, or just because.  Very few people would consider the Harvard School of Public Health a fringe organization but their view of soy is cautious.  It appears that soy is not the miracle food it purports to be.  Studies do not support soy's ability to lower bad cholesterol meaningfully, nor to stop hot flashes or menopausal symptoms.  And the phytoestrogens in soy have unknown effect.  Several studies even suggest that soy may stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.   Harvard Nutrition Source: Soy

Similarly, you may surprised to read what Harvard has to say about dairy:

        "Look beyond the dairy aisle. Limit milk and dairy foods to no more than one to two servings               per day. More won’t necessarily do your bones any good—and less is fine, as long as you get               enough calcium from other sources...While calcium and dairy can lower the risk of osteoporosis              and colon cancer, high intake can  increase the risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian                      cancer."

Let’s think a bit before we rush to make big changes.

An interesting dietary conundrum is the fact that many of the countries with the highest  dairy consumption (the Scandanavian countries and the US for example) have some of the world’s highest rates of osteoporosis.  

Researchers who believe in ancient eating styles point out that diets which are high in dairy (not ancient), cereal grains (not ancient) and meat, tend to present  high acid loads to the blood.  Fruits and vegetables are more alkaline when digested.  When things get too acidic, the body needs to release an alkaline substance to neutralize the problem.  If it is not readily available in the food we eat, calcium is the buffer that calms the acid load.  With chronic consumption of an acidic diet, the theory goes, there is chronic release of calcium from the bones leading to osteoporosis.

Once again, the Primarian, ancient or Paleo diet avoids the problem.  This seems to be the case with each new diet "discovery".   That’s no surprise if you believe, as I do, that the only thing we are "discovering" is how to eat as humans always did.  Somehow, though, that’s never the conclusion we reach.. Instead, we run to make a big correction.  In doing so, we tilt our diets like sailboats whose masts are listing in the wind.  Not a good idea when diets and health are all about balance.

An ancient diet is primarily composed of fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries, lean meats, poultry, fish, seafood and eggs. Lean toward the plant matter and add high quality animal protein. When possible, the animals we eat should be fed a diet that is composed of their own natural foods (in other words, grass fed rather than grain fed).  Grain is not a part of ancient diet, nor are legumes like soy because there was no original genetic exposure to these foods.   While I include low fat dairy in my Primarian diet (for the sake of making it more palatable to modern eaters), I suggest sparing use.  Animal milk is a new food for most humans and many have a problem with it, including lactose intolerance—a condition that effects the majority of the world’s population.

In our modern world, a good diet may be defined as a diet that manages to survive every challenge issued by scientific "discovery".   In the past 7 years or so since I became primarily Primarian, I haven’t had a moment of diet fickleness.  Nothing has made me rush to change my plan because each new diet finding has neatly aligned with exactly what I’m eating.  Low salt, high potassium, more omega three, less saturated fats, more fish, fewer pills...less visits to the doctor.

I've got it covered.

 

 

 


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