“Believe it or not, most of the adult population has no need for significant calcium intake, and that need rapidly decreases with age,” touts Thomas E. Levy, MD, JD, author of Death by Calcium: Proof of the Toxic Effects of Dairy and Calcium Supplements.
He further asserts that excess calcium can contribute to the development of degenerative diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer: “Understandably, most people are shocked to hear this.” So, what does that mean for you and your health? Here, Dr. Levy separates fact from fiction.
- Calcium is “good” for you.
Truth: Yes, some calcium does the body good: It supports strong bones as well as heart, muscle, and nerve functions. But many people mistakenly think that overdrinking dairy or popping calcium supplements will help prevent osteoporosis—a bone-thinning disease that results in an increased risk of fracture—because osteoporosis is linked to calcium deficiency. This is only partially true. If you have osteoporosis, you do have a calcium deficiency—but only in your bones. Pumping excess calcium into the rest of the body can increase all-cause mortality by 250 percent.
- You need to eat dairy products to get enough calcium.
Truth: The recommended daily allowance of calcium is between 1,000 and 1,300 mg for most adults, which seems easily attainable if we make milk, yogurt, and other dairy products part of our daily diets. However, cultures that drink little to no milk actually have a much lower incidence of osteoporosis than Americans, says Dr. Levy, and a diet that includes meat, eggs, and veggies will adequately meet our calcium needs. Consuming dairy should be a personal choice, and avoiding it will not necessarily make you calcium-deficient.
- Calcium is the only supplement that effectively prevents broken bones.
Truth: Although some studies indicate that calcium supplementation decreases the incidence of fracture among osteoporosis patients, many of those studies also included a co-supplement of vitamin D—which by itself can actually help reduce osteoporotic fractures.
Additionally, many studies were too small, short, or biased to draw any reliable conclusions, says Dr. Levy. For example, some studies relied on the patient’s own observations and memory rather than a double-blind placebo control. If you do seek vitamin D-rich foods for bone strength, look for those with low calcium content—vitamin D does help the body to better absorb calcium, so too much of both nutrients could lead to a “calcium overdose.”
- More calcium = increased bone density = stronger bones.
Truth: Using calcium supplements to “fix” bone density—with the belief that this will solve bone strength issues and thus reduce fractures—is like using paint to fix a rotting fence. Sure, you can paint the outside so, at least cosmetically, the issue appears to be solved—but the underlying problem has not been addressed, and problems will persist. Even if your bone density score increases with calcium supplementation, the structural makeup of the bones will still be abnormal and as susceptible to fracture as they were prior to the supplementation. Additionally, excess calcium often doesn’t even make it into the bones; it just moves to other parts of the body, where it is unneeded and can cause harm.
- The biggest danger associated with osteoporosis is breaking a bone.
Truth: Of course, breaking a bone is serious business—a number of complications can arise, leading to limited mobility, infections, or even death. But would you say breaking a bone is more serious than having a stroke, heart attack, or cancer?
Dr. Levy cites a large study of postmenopausal women, which found that those with the lowest bone density scores had a 60 percent increase in the risk for death—and most of those deaths did not relate to fracture. He further explains: As osteoporosis advances, more calcium is released from the bones into other parts of the body, where it is free to harm other tissues and organs.