A Low-Calcium Diet and Osteoporosis

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • Vegans avoid calcium-rich dairy products, as do many folks with lactose intolerance. But even if you think you’re getting enough calcium in your diet, certain “calcium thieves” might be interfering with what you need for good bone health. Discover factors that might reduce the effectiveness of the calcium you’re consuming, and what to do about them.

    If you’re embracing a dairy-free lifestyle, you probably realize that one of the main sources of calcium in many people’s diets – dairy products – is missing in yours.

    Low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt, and even ice cream are an easy, tasty way to ensure you reach your daily recommended intake of calcium. But if you’re a strict vegetarian/vegan, or lactose intolerant, you avoid these products.

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    Lacking dairy, your healthy diet probably includes other calcium-rich foods, like leafy green vegetables, certain fruits (rhubarb is a great choice), soybeans or soymilk, and calcium-enriched cereals and juices.

    But even if you take steps to reach the FDA’s recommended daily intake of calcium – 1000mg for healthy adults, based on a 2,000-calorie diet; up to 1500mg a day if you’re battling bone loss – you may not actually be getting the benefit of all the calcium you consume. How and when you get your calcium, as well as the other foods you eat, can significantly lower its absorption.

    In short – beware of calcium thieves! Let’s examine some of the ways your body can inadvertently lose calcium before it has a chance to do its critical work.

    Protein’s good for you – right? Well, yes – the right amount of protein is necessary for all kinds of bodily functions. But too much protein can throw your body’s pH – its acid/alkaline balance – out of whack, tipping it towards the acid side.

    What happens then? Calcium, which regulates the pH balance in your blood, leaves your bones to restore your blood’s balance. The result? Loss of calcium from your bones, not a good thing when you’re trying to build their strength.

    How much protein is too much? If you’re a vegan, you really don’t have to worry about this; it would be nearly impossible to overload on the protein in beans and other non-animal products.

    But if you’re avoiding dairy products due to lactose intolerance, you probably don’t want to follow an ultra high-protein diet packed with meat and hard cheese (e.g., Atkins), two of the biggest culprits when it comes to raising blood acid.

    Leafy green vegetables
    But, aren’t leafy green vegetables a GOOD source of calcium? Yes, generally speaking; but some of these vegetables also carry oxalates, which inhibit calcium’s absorption. High-oxalate greens include spinach and Swiss chard; don’t think of them a good source of calcium, and try not to eat them with other calcium-rich foods.

    Low-oxalate greens, and a better choice for effective calcium absorption, include broccoli, collard greens, kale, and bok choy (Chinese cabbage).

    Alas, chocolate is another high-oxalate food. However, it’s also rich in healthy antioxidants; and for many of us, it’s an emotional must-have.

  • Consume chocolate in reasonable amounts, and try not to eat it with other calcium-rich foods, whose effectiveness it could compromise.

    Nuts, seeds, and grains
    Phytates, like oxalates, inhibit calcium’s absorption; unfortunately, they’re found in nuts, seeds, whole grains, and other high-fiber foods, the basis of many a vegan diet. Thankfully, their inhibiting effect on calcium isn’t high; so don’t avoid these healthy foods, just balance them with fruits and vegetables.

    Soft drinks
    Not only are soft drinks absolutely empty calories, adding no nutrition to your diet; they may actually increase calcium loss from your blood, which in turn causes your bones to release calcium.

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    Check the label of your favorite soft drink; if it includes phosphoric acid (and/or caffeine, another calcium thief), it’s best to avoid it, or limit yourself to a reasonable number of servings a day.

    Like the phosphoric acid in soft drinks, salt (sodium) can increase your excretion of calcium. Pay attention to how much sodium you should be getting daily (usually, less than 1500mg); and try not to exceed that amount.

    Be aware, it’s not usually the salt on your popcorn that’s doing the most damage; it’s processed foods, like canned soup and vegetables, and frozen prepared meals. Get into the habit of reading food labels; you’ll be surprised just how much sodium is in packaged foods, even those that don’t taste salty.

    Prescription drugs
    Certain prescription drugs can lower your body’s ability to absorb calcium. And, while you take these drugs for a good reason and shouldn’t stop due to their effect on calcium, it’s good to know whether that asthma medicine or antibiotic is a calcium thief. Ask your doctor if the prescription drug you’re taking inhibits calcium absorption.

    Along with all the other harm smoking does, it can decrease your ability to absorb calcium. If you smoke, make an effort to quit. If you don’t smoke – don’t start.

    Hydrochloric acid (HCL), necessary for calcium absorption in the intestines, is suppressed when your stress level rises. Not enough HCL = less calcium passing from digestive system to bloodstream. All of us are stressed occasionally; but if you find yourself in high-stress situations day after day, it’s time for a lifestyle change.

    Getting old is a fact of life; you can’t avoid it. Nor can you ignore the fact that not only do you naturally absorb less calcium as you age; you probably eat less as well, meaning you don’t have as much calcium in your diet as you did 40 years ago. 

    Which brings us to supplements. Due to sneaky calcium thieves and other factors, it’s estimated that up to 80% of the calcium we adults eat is never absorbed. Thankfully, calcium supplements are manufactured in a way that ensures your body will absorb them during digestion; so when you take a multivitamin with 500mg of calcium, you can be sure you’re getting just about all of that 500mg.

    Bottom line: so long as you’re aware of other foods that compete with calcium, and take a supplement, you should meet your daily calcium needs without a problem.

  • And sufficient calcium intake every day is one of the key ways you can protect and build bone strength.

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Published On: October 23, 2011