How the Calcium Paradox Baffles Bone Beliefs
Diseases like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and atherosclerosis are rather hidden -- out of sight out of mind for many of us. But osteoporosis? We've all seen an older neighbor with a bowed back or known an elderly relative whose health quickly tumbled downhill after breaking a hip. The specter of our bones crumbling, unable to hold us up anymore, is enough to send millions of us rushing out for calcium supplements in hopes of preventing the breakdown of our skeletal structure. "A pill to the rescue!" we think as we wash it down with a glass of cow's milk for good measure. "Not so fast," says science.
Amy Lanou, PhD, publishes regularly on the relationship between vegetarian diets and dairy products and health. While it's known that osteoporosis is characterized by mineral loss -- particularly calcium loss -- from our bones, Dr. Lanou says that we make a big leap when we assume the remedy is dumping dairy or supplements into our body. "The problem is, the amount of calcium that we pour into the body is not directly related to how much calcium is in bone."
Dr. Lanou tells us that -- ironically, the countries of the world which consume little to no milk, dairy products, or calcium supplements enjoy 50% to 70% fewer bone fractures while the countries where the population is told to "drink milk for strong bones" are the countries with the higher rates of osteoporosis. The World Health Organization has dubbed this phenomenon the calcium paradox:
With regard to calcium intakes to prevent osteoporosis, the Consultation referred to the recommendations of the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Consultation on Vitamin and Mineral Requirements in Human Nutrition (18) which highlighted the calcium paradox. The paradox (that hip fracture rates are higher in developed countries where calcium intake is higher than in developing countries where calcium intake is lower) clearly calls for an explanation. To date, the accumulated data indicate that the adverse effect of protein, in particular animal (but not vegetable) protein, might outweigh the positive effect of calcium intake on calcium balance.
So if cow's milk isn't the answer, what should we do to strengthen our bones?
Dr. Lanou offers us some keys for building up our bones:
1. Eating. We should eat for overall good health. A diet rich in plant foods will give us the 17 different nutrients required to build bones. "We need to take the emphasis off of calcium and focus on a diet that will create an environment in the body in which bones want to make new bone and not un-form or break down. To do that we need a healthy, whole foods, plant-based eating style and we need to move our bodies."
2. Exercise. It doesn't have to be high intensity or weight lifting, but it does have to be regular. Walking, dancing, and gardening will strengthen our bones. And while walking on a treadmill is good, hiking outside on a trail is even better. Because treadmills are stationary, they cause us to use the same muscles and bones repeatedly, but hiking outside is different. The unevenness of the terrain causes us to stress bones in different directions -- we climb up, we hike down, and we move side-to-side in response to the trail. The activity signals the body to strengthen the bones according to the demands placed on them. That's why we shouldn't forget our arms and shoulders. Gardening and kneading bread are just two activities that strengthen vulnerable arm bones.
3. Enough Vitamin D. Since our body naturally makes Vitamin D when our skin is exposed to sunlight, we should check with our health care provider to find out if we have enough of this bone-strengthening hormone in our system. If we discover that our Vitamin D is low, we can work with our provider to bring it up to an optimal level.
One Path to Optimal Health
Here in Texas where I live there's a popular bumper sticker: I wasn't born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could! It's like that with a whole-foods, plant-based, no-added-oil diet. Most of us didn't grow up eating this way. In fact, many of us don't even hear about this lifestyle until we're experiencing the onset of disease. But once we change to a whole-foods plant-based diet with no added oil, our bodies quickly respond with renewed health. And what amazes me the most is that this one lifestyle can arrest, improve, or even cure all sorts of disease conditions.
The story of Ruth Heidrich is inspiring. One of Ruth's biggest health concerns was a family history of osteoporosis -- until she was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at 47. Not one to give up, Ruth joined a research study conducted by Dr. John McDougall. She immediately switched to a whole-foods plant-based diet devoid of added oil, and since she still felt healthy, she added biking and swimming to her daily running routine. By age 67, she had completed six Ironman competitions and competed in and won numerous marathons and races. Most importantly, she has beaten cancer and steadily improved her bone density! Says Ruth:
Because I was concerned about a strong family history of osteoporosis, I tracked my bone density and found that from the age of 47 to my last test at 64, my bone density INCREASED significantly with each test. I was obviously getting enough calcium on this diet! I was also very pleasantly surprised to discover that my arthritis disappeared, that I could stop taking Naprosyn. This was the drug that had been prescribed for my arthritis which I’d been told I would have to take for the rest of my life! My joints today not only are not arthritic, but are very supportive of my running.
I encourage you to win, too, by eating a whole-foods plant-based, no-added-oil diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough Vitamin D. These are the best steps to building bones that will hold us up for many years to come.
For additional information:
(1) Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis
(2) McDougall's Moments: Osteoporosis
(3) Is a Plant-Based Diet Bad for the Bones? Not!!!
(4) The Plant-Based Pharmacist on: Osteoarthritis
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