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Many of us have been there. Those who choose to limit dairy as part of their Paleo-style eating plan are asked by terribly concerned family and friends:
“No milk?! But how will you get CALCIUM?”
They’re convinced – nay, indoctrinated – by the dogma that is the USDA’s MyPlate (proud sponsors of nutrient deficiency), which implies – with its endorsement of low-fat dairy – that such a processed “food group” is the only way to get calcium. Well, it’s not.
Leafy greens and homemade bone broth – one of my absolute favorite superfoods – are sources of calcium that are highly bio-available (easily absorbed and utilized by the body). I wouldn’t worry about somebody’s calcium status if they were eating lots of veggies and bone broths – they’re probably cultivating plenty of non-Westernized, healthy food habits above and beyond guzzling ultra-pasteurized skim milk between bites of Fiber One.
I’m being (udderly) cheeky. There ARE, in fact, a few legitimate ways to address this question. Unfortunately, the old “acid-base balance” schtick isn’t the true answer.
(I must point out: I live on the “Paleo/Primal” spectrum with a good dose of common sense mixed in. I don’t think all dairy is evil – and I have no hard-and-fast dairy “Manifesto,” – but I do think a responsible consumer of dairy products needs to be well-educated.
The Calcium Answer, Method One: The Awesome Answer.
My preferred answer to the question “But how will you get your CALCIUM?” is to simply say, “from your MOM!”
Unfortunately, that’s not always constructive.
The Calcium Answer, Method Two: The short, yet open-ended answer.
I like to address the calcium question with yet another question, such as: “Who told you that DAIRY is the only way to get CALCIUM?”
Often the answer is a bumbling “…uh, well, the food pyramid – er, plate? The government? Dr. Oz…Osteoporosis?” which opens the door to the following:
I eat natural, unprocessed foods – not pasteurized, homogenized, de-fatted industrial products. Broth – a mineral-rich, traditional food, is a higher-quality source of calcium and minerals (and other great things, like collagen). Vegetables provide calcium too. Raw dairy, if you know what you’re doing, is perfectly nutritious. If you knew what happened to conventional dairy from udder to cup, you’d avoid it too. (^Source)
Whether you’re concerned about calcium intake or things like osteoporosis, realize that it’s not about quantity anyway. It’s about giving your body the tools to use calcium efficiently and properly. I do this by getting the co-factors that MAINTAIN quality bone. Co-factors are everything from balanced blood sugar to other vitamins and minerals, fatty acids, and even exercise.
It’s ignorance of this fact that’s caused doctors and Big Pharma to have dairy-calcium tunnel vision. Incidentally, leafy greens are higher in calcium, calorie-for-calorie, than milk, and have none of the allergenic properties of standard, grocery store, corn-fed, factory-farmed, pasteurized, homogenized dairy. Bone broth is rich in other minerals, like magnesium, as well.
Okay, so that’s a bit of a mouthful. But it seems the ubiquitous “got milk?” campaign hasn’t really improved peoples’ overall bone health – judging by the ever-present advertisements for drugs that “fight osteoporosis.” Something’s not right.
(Is the “Got Milk” campaign still going on?)
We’re incredibly bone-centric when it comes to this issue – understandably so, since 99% of our calcium is stored in our skeletal system. Your entire body uses calcium, however, and that storage system is important – it allows the body to recruit the calcium it needs, when it needs it. We’ve got a built-in system of bone remodeling that keeps those bones strong as they give-and-take calcium over time.
The truth is, it’s not about how much calcium we take in. It’s about balancing bodily systems with Real Food so that the body can maintain homeostasis, optimize nutrient absorption and utilization, and – of course – maintain excellent bone health.
The Calcium Answer, Method Three: The awesomely intricate, TRUE STORY about Calcium…
…and specifically, why someone on a Paleo-style plan – especially an optimized, “Paleo Plus” plan rich in bone broth and fat-soluble vitamins – simply doesn’t need to worry about their calcium status!
The most important thing to understand is this: the way your body uses calcium – including how your bones maintain density and quality – is entirely dependent on co-factors.
Here’s a rundown:
Co-Factor 1: Hormonal & Blood Sugar Balance.
The body obsessively regulates both blood pH and blood sugar balance. These are both modulated by hormones.
Buffering blood pH involves the alkalinizing properties of calcium. The parathyroid gland releases parathyroid hormone, which initiates osteoclastic activity – releasing calcium from the bones - which buffers blood pH. Calcitonin (released from the thyroid) counter-balances this process by inhibiting osteoclastic activity. Estrogen and progesterone “check-and-balance” one another in calcium utilization as well.
(Another problem in modern life? Xenoestrogens. Estrogen-mimicking substances like soy and plastics can skew this balance.)
The body prioritizes blood sugar balance so highly because it profoundly affects your hormonal balance and signaling. If your blood sugar is out of control, nothing else will fall into place – including calcium balance. Elevated blood sugar, stress, and resulting cortisol dysregulation and adrenal stress (also hormonal) increases calcium mobilization from the bones – as in, they reduce bone density.
The hormone-deploying parathyroid gland also signals the body to produce specific binding proteins for the minerals it needs – for example, calcium. (Yet another signaling loop that’s inhibited by a bad diet.)
A good way to prove that the modern governmental dietary recommendations are a breeding ground for dysregulated blood sugar – and therefore dysregulated hormones – is my side-by-side comparison of the glycemic load of two plans: the first, a Standard American “healthy” plan; the second, a sample “Paleo” plan. (And this plan doesn’t include bone broth – imagine how many minerals it would add!)
Co-factor 2: Hydration (Water & Electrolytes)
I won’t obsess over this, since we all know how important hydration is to health. Water, broth, and water-dense foods like whole proteins and vegetables are extremely hydrating. Soda, however, is not – it’s important to note that the orthophosphoric acid in soft drinks may cause bone breakdown, especially with high, chronic consumption over time.
A balance of electrolytes is in the body is important to hydration as well, as electrolytes regulate body fluid balance and the transmission of electrical impulses across cell membranes (these impulses enable us to move). Himalayan or Celtic sea salt is a great addition to the diet, although adding excess refined salt to a Standard American Diet filled with packaged and processed foods is not recommended. (6)
Also – kick the Cola.
Co-factor 3: Don’t Take Counterproductive Drugs.
I’m not talking about the fun kind of drugs (although you should probably toss those as well). Big Pharma has created some truly gnarly “solutions” to osteoporosis ( like Boniva). These drugs literally inhibit osteoclastic activity. This means they keep bones from breaking down – and stop the natural, necessary and constant process of bone remodeling. Think about it as packing clay on to a crumbling sculpture. OsteoBLASTIC activity without osteoCLASTIC activity means bones become more dense, but NOT stronger. Sorry Sally.
Co-Factor 4: Digestion.
The body must have adequate HCL (stomach acid) to absorb calcium. Modern acid blockers like Nexium and Prilosec literally stop the production of stomach acid, and because of this, nutrients can’t be absorbed properly. This wreaks havoc across all bodily systems, because they all require adequate nutrients to function properly. (In fact, you want MORE stomach acid, not less!)
Additionally, dietary factors – like the consumption of gluten and grains – can interfere with nutrient absorption in the gut. (See this post - USDA: Proud Sponsors of Nutrient Deficiency.) Specifically, the phytic acid in grains and beans can bind to minerals like calcium, magnesium and zinc, rendering them indigestible. (6) This becomes a marked problem in a Standard American Diet, which is dangerously rich in these “mineral binders.”
Co-factor 5: Other Minerals & Vitamins…and hormones
Your ability to absorb and utilize minerals is absolutely mediated by the components of the foods you eat (see my USDA post for more on this).
Adequate intake of magnesium and vitamin D (which is technically a hormone, generated by sunlight’s action on the skin; and also found in some seafood, cod liver oil, and raw milk) are the co-factors you’ll hear about most often. But it’s not about hammering your body with one at the exclusion of another. Calcium, Magnesium and Vitamin D are not the Three Musketeers. They’re more like the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judiciary: they’re not always friends, but they keep one another in check. They even inhibit one another – but only when necessary.
Vitamin D works with parathyroid hormone to increase blood calcium when necessary. It also works with ^vitamin K2 to regulate the depositing of calcium in the proper areas to protect the body from improper calcium deposition (like arterial calcification – also known as clogged arteries).
Magnesium is involved in calcium transport, but it will also block calcium pathways as needed – acting as a counter (a “relaxer”) to calcium’s properties of contraction (remember, minerals are electrolytes, and electrolytes are needed to enable us to move by contracting and relaxing our muscles). Magnesium also helps convert vitamin D to its active form, which allows for calcium absorption. (1)
Vitamin K2 is active in everything from bone synthesis and formation to fertility and skin health. You can ^supplement with it, you can choose grass-fed, full-fat dairy products like butter and ghee, or you can buy the ancestral food High-Vitamin Cod Liver Oil/Butter Oil Blend, which provides vitamins A, D and K2 in proper proportion. While most “Paleo” folk don’t generally do dairy, this post may shed some light on why certain types of dairy may be good to go, and why eating OR NOT EATING something just because it is/isn’t Paleo is – well – kinda silly.
Other minerals are critical to calcium use as well. Calcium must also be in-balance with potassium and trace elements like boron, copper and zinc. (3)
This balance is critical, and nearly impossible to achieve definitively using supplements and a Standard American diet. Step back, eat real food, and let your body fall into balance based on its innate ability to prioritize and utilize the nutrients from Real Food (and sunlight).
Co-Factor 6: Fatty Acids
Fatty Acids are responsible for the transport of calcium across cell membranes, which also interacts with electrolyte balance. Too many polyunsaturates (predominantly from vegetable oils) decreases the stability of the cell membrane, and saturated fats strengthen it. That’s why both unsaturated and saturated fats are important, but they must be consumed in their natural form to prevent getting too much – or too little – of either. Natural polyunsaturates are found in abundance in oily fish, and saturated fats are found in coconut oil, animal fat, butter and ghee. Vegetable oils are highly processed and not appropriate sources of nutrition of any kind.
Additionally, fats and cholesterol are critical to the creation and synthesis of hormones, although not all Fatty Acids are created equal. A study from Purdue University indicated that high levels of free radicals from linoleic acid (an Omega-6 fatty acid found in excess in the Standard American Diet because it’s found principally in unhealthy, highly processed fats like “vegetable,” corn and soy oils), interfered with bone-building. (2)
Co-Factor 7: Exercise.
Exercise builds bone strength. (I think the audience understands this one.)
So there you have it: The Calcium Rundown. Memorize it. Carry a copy with you at all times. An anti-SAD plan with Paleo principles in mind takes care of calcium status by being naturally replete in both calcium and the 7 Calcium Co-Factors. Processed foods and the Standard American Diet are NOT high in these co-factors. End of (long, delightfully complex) story.
Thanks to the Nutritional Therapy Association for providing the education that inspired this post!
(1) Katherine Czapp. Magnificent Magnesium. Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts. Quarterly Publication of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2010.
(2) BA Watkins et al, “Importance of Vitamin E in Bone Formation and in Chondrocyte Function” Purdue University
(3) Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig. Do High Protein Diets Cause Bone Loss? Myths & Truths about Osteoporosis. The Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation quarterly journal
(4) Dr. Mercola, Mercola.com.
(5) Wright, Jonathan and Lane Lenard. Why Stomach Acid is Good For You.
(6) Lindeberg, Staffan. Food and Western Disease.