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Publish date: Jun 3, 2009
Summary: Why is osteoporosis such a big issue in North America if we consume more calcium than most of the world?
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There is a lot of hype these days about getting enough calcium. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for calcium in the US is 1,200 mg per day. Americans consume huge quantities of calcium compared with most of the world. However, the United States has one of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world. How are we consuming so much calcium, but still losing calcium from our bones?
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis comes from the words osteo, which means "bone," and poros, which means "pore" or "passage."i This disease is the gradual thinning of bone tissue and reduction of bone density.
People with osteoporosis have brittle bones and can often suffer poor posture, neck and back pain, and unhealthy weight loss. Approximately 1 in 5 American women over 50 suffer from osteoporosis.ii
Osteoporosis occurs when the body does not have enough calcium and phosphate for normal bone formation. Often, the body needs the calcium for other uses and pulls it back to of the bones, causing the bone density loss which leads to osteoporosis. It is therefore essential to maintain healthy calcium levels in the body. But what is a healthy calcium level? Why are North Americans so affected by this disease?
Animal Proteins are the Culprit
In countries with plant-based diets, people consume little calcium and dairy. Still, osteoporosis levels are low in those nations.iii
Researchers have discovered that a lack of calcium isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the high amount of animal proteins we eat and drink. When we digest animal proteins, our bodies produce sulfuric acid, which must be buffered with calcium. This calcium is lost in urine along with the acid.iv
The best way to stop calcium loss is to eat fewer animal proteins, including those in dairy products like milk, eggs, and cheese. The American Dairy Council would have us believe that we must get calcium from dairy products in order to maintain strong bones. Yet “in one study (sponsored by the Dairy Council) women consuming three 8-ounce glasses of cow’s milk per day still lost calcium from their bodies, and remained in negative calcium balance, even after a year of consuming almost 1,500 mg of calcium daily.”v
The good news is that the effects of osteoporosis can be prevented and reversed. We must simply adopt a diet low in animal proteins and get our calcium from plant sources. A 1981 study of calcium and protein levels showed that consuming 95 g of protein per day from animal sources and 1,400 mg of calcium supplements caused a net loss of nearly 30 mg of calcium from the bones everyday. However, a diet of only 48 g of animal proteins and 1,400 mg of calcium supplements caused a daily gain of 20 mg of calcium.vi But unlike animal protein, vegetable protein is not related to osteoporosis.vii
The US RDA is 56 g for protein and 1,200 mg for calcium, because of calcium loss due to animal protein intake. The World Health Organization recommends “a more modest protein intake, 29 grams versus 56, and only 500 milligrams of calcium per day.”viii
The World Health Organization has also observed that “calcium deficiency has never been documented anywhere in the world, even with calcium intakes of as little as 300 mg/day.”ix It isn’t the lack of calcium in the diet that causes osteoporosis, but rather eating too much animal protein.
Even though milk contains lots of calcium, humans only absorb 20-40% of that calcium. Humans absorb as much or more calcium from plant products than from milk.x However, some plants contain compounds that block calcium absorption, like phytic acid in wheat bran cereal and oxalic acid in spinach.xi
The best calcium sources contain little phosphorus. Green leafy vegetables like kale, turnip greens, and mustard greens are excellent calcium sources and have three to five times more calcium than they have phosphorus.
Beef, pork, and fish have lots of phosphorus and hardly any calcium. Sesame seeds and tofu have nearly equal amounts of calcium and phosphorus. Carbonated beverages typically have 41 mg of phosphorus and no calcium.xii Pepsi has 53 mg of phosphorus in a 12 oz can.xiii Such drinks do not help our bodies benefit from the calcium in our food.
How to Get Enough Calcium
Do We Really Need Calcium Supplements?
“If calcium supplements are used, be sure they are not made from bone meal or oyster shell. These substances are often contaminated with arsenic, lead, or mercury, that accumulates in the bones and shells of these animals.”xiv
Nutritionists recommend that calcium be obtained from whole plant sources rather than from supplements.xv Chemists have discovered how to make vitamin and mineral supplements more absorbable. But why pay high prices for bioengineered vitamins and minerals when God has already provided them in wholesome, natural plants? Calcium is waiting for you in the produce section of your grocery store, in the local farmer’s market, and in your own garden.
Calcium-rich Plant Foods
Here’s a list of foods that can provide plenty of calcium. Remember, on a low-protein diet of 30 g or less per day, especially protein from plant sources, daily calcium needs are only 500 mg.
- Lambsquarters (1 cup = 464 mg calcium)
- Collard greens (1 cup = 356 mg)
- Amaranth grain (1 cup = 298 mg)
- Figs, dried (10 = 269 mg)
- Green soybeans (1 cup = 261 mg)
- Tofu, firm (½ cup = 258 mg)
- Turnip greens (1 cup = 249 mg)
- Kale (1 cup = 179 mg)
- Sesame seeds, dried (2 tbsp = 176 mg)
- Blackstrap molasses (1 tbsp = 172 mg)
- Okra, boiled (1 cup = 154 mg)
- Baked beans (1 cup = 154 mg)
- Mustard greens (1 cup = 152 mg)
- Dandelion greens (1 cup = 146 mg)
- Artichoke, boiled (1 medium = 135 mg)
- Quinoa grain (1 cup = 102 mg)
Blackstrap molasses contains the highest amount of calcium. Carob powder, parsley, almonds, watercress, Brazil nuts, brewer’s yeast, and broccoli are also high in calcium. Sunflowers seeds, dried apricots, buckwheat, walnuts, and peanuts contain low to medium amounts of calcium as well.
There are delicious, healthy ways to fight osteoporosis without using dairy or fish. All it takes is education and a varied diet.
iii. Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina, Becoming Vegan (Summertown: Book Publishing, 2000): 35. Also, Neil Nedley, Proof Positive (Nedley Publishing, 1999): 153.
iv. Proof Positive: 152-156.
v. Michael Klaper, MD, Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple (Book Publishing, 1999): 28.
vi. Proof Positive: 152.
vii. Ibid: 154-5.
viii. Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple: 38.
ix. Aileen Ludington, MD, and Hans Diehl, DrHsc, MPH, Health Power, Health by Choice Not Chance (Review & Herald Publishing, 2001): 57.
x. Proof Positive: 155.
xii. Proof Positive: 156; Becoming Vegan: 94.
xiii. Jean Pennington, Bowes & Church’s Food Values of Portions Commonly Used 17th Edition (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1998): 7.
xiv. Vegan Nutrition: Pure and Simple: 39.
xv. Ibid: 28.
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