In general, my family doesn’t bat an eye at my unusual nutrition habits. They’ve seen first hand how my dietary changes took me from chronically ill to full of life. So, on the whole, they accept that I’m doing what is best for my body. But still, my parents are understandably concerned with some of my food habits, such as when I started fortifying my smoothies with raw pastured egg yolks (“Are you sure you’re not inviting salmonella?” they asked. Nope, here’s why I’m not).
One thing that concerned my mom was my lack of calcium supplementation. A while ago, she asked me,”Since you haven’t eaten dairy for a long time, I’m worried that you aren’t getting enough calcium. Why don’t you take a calcium supplement?”
I smiled, told her not to worry, and thanked her for a great blog post suggestion.
1. Calcium supplements are shown to be harmful
In a nutshell, the problem with taking calcium supplements is that your body cannot utilize isolated calcium. Unless calcium is paired with cofactors (discussed below), it cannot be taken into the bones.
As a result, the body doesn’t know what to do with the calcium, but it has to put it somewhere. One theory is that the non-useable calcium contributes to plaque formation (mineral deposits in the arteries), which is why calcium supplements are shown to increase the risk of heart disease.
Wait a minute… calcium supplements raise the risk of heart disease? Yep! One of my favorite nutrition researchers, Chris Kresser, compiled many studies on calcium supplementation in his post, “Calcium Supplements: Why You Should Think Twice.” Here’s what he found:
- Calcium supplementation isn’t correlated with bone health. This study in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that calcium supplementation doesn’t reduce fracture rates in older women.
- Calcium supplementation is correlated with increased heart disease. This study of 24,000 people found that those taking calcium supplements had a 139% greater risk of heart attacks during the 11-year study (calcium-rich foods did not increase the risk).
- This meta-analysis found that calcium supplements significantly increased the risk of heart attack and stroke.
- And this study of 12,000 men showed that calcium supplementation increased the risk of death from heart disease by 20%.
2. Calcium absorption is all about the cofactors
The simple rule when it comes to calcium? Here’s a simple and annoying way to remember! Sing the following to the chorus tune of All About That Bass:
It’s all about cofactors, ’bout cofactors, ’bout cofactors, no supplements…
Without cofactors – the nutrients that work in synergy with other nutrients – your body cannot use calcium to strengthen bones. It’s as simple as that.
Although every mineral and vitamin could be considered a cofactor of calcium, the following are particularly important:
- Vitamin K2 activates the protein osteocalcin found in bones, which allows the bones to “hold on” to calcium. It also protects the arteries from calcium deposits.
- Vitamin D acts like a steroid hormone in the body and helps the body utilize calcium.
- Magnesium works as a counter-balance for calcium, and is needed in balance with calcium for heart health and proper muscle function.
Vitamin K2 may be the most vital cofactor for calcium absorption. It can be described as the”shuttle” that transports calcium into the bones. It is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it requires fatty acids to be absorbed. It is not to be confused with K1, a water-soluble vitamin found in leafy greens.
A higher intake of K2 is correlated with a significant reduction in heart disease and bone fractures (source).
Sources of vitamin K2 include:
- Pastured egg yolks
- Dairy products from grass-grazing animals. Search for “pasture butter” or Kerrygold butter at your grocery store.
- Grassfed ghee, available here, is an excellent source, and a versatile cooking fat which I use for sauteeing and baking.
- Liver – try homemade liver pate or these grassfed desiccated liver capsules.
- Aged and hard cheeses, such as brie, gouda, and edam.
- Natto, a fermented soybean product. This is the only non-animal source of K2.
I highly, highly recommend reading Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life by naturopathic doctor Kate Rheaume-Bleue.
3. Whole foods are the best source of calcium
Humans have built strong bones without calcium supplements since the dawn of of humanity. After all, real food is the best source of both calcium and calcium cofactors!
Grassfed dairy products – dairy is ubiquitously applauded as the be-all-end-all source of calcium, but we need to look at the bigger picture. First, dairy from factory-farmed cows has virtually negligible levels of K2 and other fat-soluble vitamins. Second, the pasteurization and homogenenization makes it very difficult to digest. Finally, dairy is not tolerated well my many people. If it causes an inflammatory response, it’s not going to support healthy bones.
If you tolerate dairy, it can be an excellent source of calcium and k2. Seek out aged cheeses, grassfed ghee, grassfed butter, and raw milk for the most nutrients.
Leafy greens – Kale, bok choy, spinach and collard greens are good sources of calcium. Remember to serve them with a source of k2, such as pastured eggs, melted butter or ghee.
Blackstrap molasses – If you use sweeteners in your daily coffee, a great substitute would be switching sugar for molasses. A tablespoon of blackstrap molasses contains 8% of the daily value of calcium.
Canned seafood – Canned sardines and canned salmon contain the fish bones, an excellent source of calcium. If you haven’t eaten these options before, don’t let that turn you off – the bones are barely noticeable as texture.
Black eyed peas and white beans – Although legumes can be difficult to digest for some people, they can be a good source of calcium. I highly recommend properly preparing them by soaking them to reduce the anti-nutrients.
Homemade bone broth… is it a source of calcium? Here’s a surprise: Bone broth, homemade or otherwise, is not a good source of calcium according to this research by author and traditional food advocate Kaayla Daniel! However, it is important for building healthy bones. According to Kaayla, “Bone is built on a scaffold of collagen, making collagen the most important bone building component in broth.” (Read more here).
In summary, the best ways to get adequate calcium and ensure you are absorbing it includes:
- Think twice about calcium supplements, which lack cofactors required for calcium utilization
- Focus on real food sources of calcium, such as leafy greens and raw dairy products
- Enjoy foods and food-based supplements rich in calcium co-factors, such as grassfed dairy and cod liver oil
- Increase your magnesium intake with foods and specific supplements
- Support healthy fat digestion so you are able to absorb fat-soluble vitamins
Do you emphasize real food sources of calcium? And please share this post with your family and friends to help spread the message that calcium is all about cofactors!