Written By: Kevin Cann
Calcium supplementation is still a rather frequent prescription for people over 50 years of age, especially women. The thought is that older individuals tend to be at a higher risk of bone fractures, and since bone is made up of calcium, then supplementing with calcium should lead to stronger bones. The theory makes a lot of sense, but in reality this just does not work.
A new study has proven that not only is taking a calcium supplement not helping you grow denser bones, but it actually may be harmful. The article was printed in the British Medical Journal and the researchers performed a meta-analysis of the studies they could find. Most of the studies actually showed that the people over 50 do not get a benefit from taking calcium supplementation (1).
Bone is living tissue and requires many different nutrients to grow and flourish. In fact many nutrient deficiencies can lead to bone abnormalities such as diets too low in calories, zinc, protein, and vitamin D. Physical activity also plays a major role in bone health. It seems as though peaking bone mass in the first two decades of life may be the most important factor in decreasing one’s risk to bone mineral loss (2).
As important as nutrition is on bone health, the importance of physical activity can’t be discounted. There are many young children that are deficient in both vitamin D and calcium, but yet they have strong and healthy bones (3). Current guidelines for maintaining good bone health list weight bearing activities, but do not distinguish which activities are best.
Postmenopausal women tend to be the population most affected by low bone density. From my observations this group tends to run a lot and maybe lift some light weights a couple days of week in the gym. Under the current guidelines, they may be thinking they are doing everything to prevent losing bone mass. However, research has shown that this may not be effective.
In fact, research has shown that squatting may be the best exercise to prevent and help reverse low bone density. One study took 21 postmenopausal women with osteopenia or osteoporosis and placed them into two groups. One group performed supervised squats 3 days per week for 12 weeks and the other group continued to follow current exercise guidelines. In 12 weeks the squat group improved bone mineral density by close to 5% (4).
Not only is calcium supplementation not as effective as strength training for bone health, it may actually present some harm. A meta analysis published in the British Medical Journal showed there was a 30% increased risk of suffering from a heart attack, 20% increase in risk of stroke, and 9% increase in overall mortality (5).
This is most likely to do with how fast calcium is absorbed by the body in supplement form (6). Calcium from food is absorbed at much slower rates due to having to go through the digestion process. This fast dumping of calcium into the arteries can lead to the calcification of arteries. It can also lead to an increased risk of developing kidney stones. Excess calcium in the body is excreted through our urine. Having a supplement supplying a high amount of calcium quickly can lead to our kidneys not being able to flush it out.
Western medicine tends to always look at a one problem one solution approach. The solution tends to always lean towards a pill or surgery to fix every problem. Pills and surgeries are both necessary at certain times, but not all of the time. In terms of bone health, a pill is not the answer.
Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables will supply you with the all of the nutrients necessary to build new bone. Unlike in supplement form the calcium from food is more slowly absorbed so the risk of heart attack and stroke is not prevalent. We also need to eat foods that are rich in high quality protein as protein plays an important role in building new bone. We also want to minimize our intake of processed foods as these can negatively affect digestion and absorption of key nutrients.
On top of dietary changes, adding in strength training is a must. Finding a quality coach to teach you how to squat and deadlift can go a long way to keeping your bones healthy. Most women are scared that they may get hurt with these lifts, or become too bulky. This is not true. A well coached squat and deadlift can be corrective exercises for a lot of issues you may have going on. As for getting too bulky, girls do not possess the same hormonal profiles as men to put on size. Making these dietary and exercise changes is not only good for bone health, but health in general.