Calcium and Bone Health: Eating to Strengthen Bones and Prevent Osteoporosis



Calcium is a key nutrient that many of us overlook in our diets. Almost every cell in the body uses calcium in some way, including the nervous system, muscles, and heart. It is an essential building block for lifelong bone health in both men and women, while not getting enough calcium in your diet can contribute to anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. Whatever your age or gender, it’s vital to include calcium-rich foods in your diet, limit those that deplete calcium, and get enough magnesium and vitamins D and K to help calcium do its job.


What are the health benefits of calcium?


Among other things, your body uses calcium to build healthy bones and teeth, keep them strong as you age, send messages through the nervous system, help your blood clot, your muscles contract, and regulate the heart’s rhythm. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take calcium from your bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. Calcium deficiency can also lead to, or exacerbate, mood problems such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping. If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your body will take calcium from your bones to ensure normal cell function, which can lead to weakened bones or osteoporosis. Calcium deficiency can also lead to, or exacerbate, mood problems such as irritability, anxiety, depression, and difficulty sleeping.

Despite these vital functions, many of us are confused about calcium and how to best protect our bones and overall health. How much calcium should you get? Where should you get it? And what’s the deal with vitamin D, magnesium, and other nutrients that help calcium do its job? This confusion means that many of us are not getting the recommended daily amount of calcium and approximately one in two women (and about one in four men) over the age of 50 will break a bone due to osteoporosis.

Getting enough calcium in your diet is not just important for older people. It’s also vital for children, teens, and young adults since we continue building bone mass into our mid-20s. From then on, we can lose bone mass without sufficient calcium in our diets. But no matter your age, it’s important to take care of your bones and get the right amount of calcium from the food that you eat.


The calcium and osteoporosis connection

Osteoporosis is a “silent” disease characterized by loss of bone mass. Due to weakened bones, fractures become commonplace, which leads to serious health risks. People with osteoporosis often don’t recover after a fall and it is the second most common cause of death in women, mostly those aged 60 and older. Men are also at risk of developing osteoporosis, but typically 5 to 10 years later than women. For most people, osteoporosis is preventable, and getting enough calcium in your diet is the first place to start.


Food is the best source of calcium


Doctors recommend that you get as much of your daily calcium needs as possible from food and use only low-dose supplements to make up any shortfall. Your body is better able to absorb calcium from food than it can from supplements. In fact, studies show that even though people who take calcium supplements have a higher average intake, those who get their calcium from food have stronger bones. Furthermore, using high-dose calcium supplements may increase your risk of kidney stones and heart disease.


Good food sources of calcium

Good sources of calcium include dairy products, leafy green vegetables, certain fish, oatmeal and other grains, tofu, cabbage, summer squash, green beans, garlic, sea vegetables and calcium-fortified foods such as cereals and orange juice.


Calcium and whole milk dairy: The pros and cons

While milk and other dairy products contain a lot of calcium in a highly absorbable form, there may be some potential downsides.


Whole milk dairy products are often high in saturated fat. While many prominent health organizations recommend that you limit your saturated fat intake and choose low- or non-fat dairy foods, an increasing body of research shows that eating whole-milk dairy products is linked to less body fat and lower levels of obesity. Low-fat and non-fat dairy products also tend to contain lots of hidden sugar to make up for the loss of taste, which can be far more detrimental to your health and weight than the saturated fat it’s replaced.


Milk can contain high levels of estrogen. Some studies show a possible link between the natural estrogens found in milk and breast, prostate, and testicular cancer. Part of the problem is modern dairy practices, where the cows are fed synthetic hormones and antibiotics, kept continuously pregnant, and milked over 300 days per year. The more pregnant the cow, the higher the hormones in the milk. Organic milk comes from cows that are grass-fed and not given synthetic hormones or other additives, although organic milk can still be high in natural hormones. Because both natural and synthetic hormones are found in the milk fat, skim milk has a much lower level.


Some people are lactose intolerant, meaning they are unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products. Symptoms range from mild to severe, and include cramping, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. Beyond the discomfort it causes, lactose intolerance can also interfere with calcium absorption from dairy.

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