Calcium: we are all told we need more of it. That’s why we should drink milk, right? Well, as many in the Paleo community know, this is actually not quite the case. Calcium — while a mineral completely necessary for life — is not the be-all and end-all that most media would have you believe. There are actually many misconceptions and misnomers around calcium, and milk consumption is just the first one.
Did you know, for example, that the United States has one of the highest intakes of calcium – yet also has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis? If calcium were all it took for bone health, wouldn’t this data be impossible? As you can see, we are not getting the whole truth when it comes to calcium.
Many people do not realize that there are whole bevy of foods which are rich in calcium, but do not lead to any of these problems. So without further ado, let’s dive deep into the real story behind calcium and how much you actually need to keep your bones strong and healthy!
Is The Daily Value Correct?
One of the most important questions around calcium is: is the recommended daily value actually accurate? If you are consuming a diet rich in calcium, avoiding things that block calcium from being absorbed, and getting enough vitamins and minerals which also aid in bone health, you may not need the RDA of calcium. As Dr. Loren Cordain has pointed out, you may need about half the amount of calcium recommended, in actuality.
Does Calcium Build Strong Bones?
As mentioned earlier in this piece, the fact that the United States has one of the highest intakes of calcium, yet also has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis, should tell you that there is much more to bone health than just calcium. As with most topics in wellness, good bone health relies on many different things. Strong bones need vitamin D3 (actually a hormone), vitamin K2, magnesium, dietary fat, and many other things. Calcium is but one element involved in bone health.
Many scientific papers have cited the numerous lifestyle and dietary factors which are needed to have excellent bone health — and yet this information rarely makes it out to the public. Why is this? Perhaps it’s politics, perhaps it’s a lack of interest from the public — who knows. But what is very real is the myriad of things you need to be doing right in order to keep your bones healthy and strong.
Is Milk The Best Source Of Calcium?
Milk — it does a body good. I think my entire childhood and teenage years consisted of this saying being repeated to me, ad nauseum. While this has more to do with the dairy industry needing to keep their profits up than our health, milk does contain a fairy large dose of calcium. However, it also has many other issues.
While dairy is highly contextual (meaning what works for me might not work for you) I actually recommend a diet rich in green leafy vegetables, rather than rich in dairy. Why? For starters, vegetables will avoid all the problems that dairy promotes. In addition, green leafy vegetables contain many more beneficial compounds, like the epoxyxanthophylls found in spinach. Then there is broccoli, which contains a large amount of calcium, and also has bioactive compounds, like sulforaphane.
Clearly you can see that milk is not the best source of calcium. In fact, many people report significant improvements in their health when dropping dairy from their daily regimen, and replacing it with green leafy vegetables. In addition, green leafy vegetables (especially the cruciferous kind) have been linked to lower rates of cancer. Dig in!
Does Calcium Prevent Bone Fractures?
In a word: no. In fact, three long-term Harvard studies (1, 2, 3) very clearly showed this may not be the case. These studies, when combined, followed almost 200,000 men and women for a total of 42 years. Calcium certainly won’t hurt when it comes to preventing bone fractures, but it is not the silver bullet that many claim it to be.
So what does help prevent bone fractures? Well, before we get there, it’s important to note that our bones are constantly breaking down and rebuilding (similar to muscle growth), and this process is called bone remodeling. This helps our bones adapt to new stressors, and also allows bones to grow (i.e., in children). Bones are also the biggest storage place for calcium.
When our health declines, calcium can be taken away from bones, leaving them more likely to fracture. While there is indeed far more to this process than my short summary, the bottom line is that you need to do everything in your power to keep your bones strong. This means avoiding high levels of stress (chronically high cortisol depletes calcium), getting plenty of vitamin D3 (a deficiency can cause calcium levels to drop), and getting plenty of magnesium (vital in making up the structure of the bone matrix).
Another commonly overlooked factor in bone issues is inflammation.
Eating an anti-inflammatory Paleo diet, getting plenty of sleep, and practicing stress-relieving exercise and meditation will go a long way in keeping chronic inflammation at bay. As you can see, the way to strong bones is actually much more clear and logical than many are led to believe.
One last factor which can be quite damaging for bone health is prescription medication. Some medications are commonly prescribed, and yet the side effects aren’t accounted for. Make sure to ask your doctor about any side effects from medications you may be taking. If at all possible, get off those medications, and work on improving your health through a healthier diet and lifestyle.
What Other Foods Have Calcium?
Clearly, we have been led somewhat astray when it comes to calcium. Not only is it not the only element important for bone health, it also does not need to be obtained via high consumption of milk. As mentioned above, green leafy vegetables are some of the best sources of calcium. This means that those following a Paleo diet would be well-advised to consume large amounts of kale, bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, and spinach.
On the meat-eating side, it is best to consume organ meats, sardines, bone broth, shrimp, oysters and salmon. As anyone familiar with a Paleo approach can see, these are all staples of a well-rounded diet. Remember to also choose foods rich in magnesium, phosphorous and vitamin K2. Vitamin D3, while also vital to bone health, cannot be easily obtained via food. So make sure to get your daily dose of 15 minutes of sunlight, or supplement with a suitable amount.
What About Gluten?
You may be surprised to know that gluten is strongly related to poor bone health. How is this possible? Well, quite simply, gluten leads to inflammation, which remember, is a key part of developing bone health issues. While those with celiac disease are the most at risk for this problem, it is a good idea for everyone to avoid gluten — your body will thank you. This is also further proof that the Paleo diet — which leaves out the inflammatory food groups of dairy and grains — is best for bone health, too.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to calcium, the truth is both simpler and more complex than we have been led to believe. It is simpler because we don’t need 2 gallons of milk per day to get enough calcium. And it is more complex, because we need other elements besides calcium in order to build strong bones.
Once again, the Paleo approach speaks to the scientific truth, while mainstream health outlets still tend to get it wrong. I hope I’ve provided a good overview of the common myths about calcium, and I also hope that your diet can now be full of nutrient-dense, calcium-rich choices!