High-Calcium Diets Probably Cause Osteoporosis

At least every 5 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are required by federal law to issue Dietary Guidelines for Americans. According to the law, these guidelines are supposed to be based on the best available science. Yet some of their recommendations don’t seem to have any basis in science at all. In particular, I think that their recommendations about calcium intake will make the problem of osteoporosis worse, not better.
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Stop Worrying About Calcium Deficiency

The committee that put together the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010 were trying to solve a nonexistent problem: calcium deficiency. Unfortunately, their suggested solution to this nonexistent problem would make some of our most serious real problems worse. If people follow these guidelines and eat more dairy foods, they will actually increase their risk for osteoporosis and several other common, serious health problems.

The human body is surprisingly good at maintaining calcium balance on a low-calcium diet. To find cases of true dietary deficiency of calcium, you have to look at people who were consuming extremely abnormal diets. Most cases involved babies who were being fed some bizarre substitute for breast milk. In reality, cases of rickets (soft bones) in children are nearly always due to a shortage of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin.

When you think about it, most of the world’s large land animals manage to get enough calcium from their plant-based diet to grow an enormous skeleton. Nor does any species other than our own consume the milk of another species, or any milk at all after infancy. So why should we expect human beings to need dairy foods, or to need a calcium intake that can be achieved only through eating dairy foods or taking supplements? It makes no sense.

Scientists have known for decades that osteoporosis occurs mainly in countries where people eat a lot of dairy products and have a relatively high calcium intake. In fact, there’s reason to believe that eating too much animal protein and too much calcium actually causes osteoporosis.

The populations with a high risk for osteoporosis also have high rates of death from coronary artery disease. Fortunately, the same kind of diet that prevents heart attacks also helps to keep the bones strong. That means eating a low-fat, plant-based diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.

It’s also important to get enough vitamin D. A few minutes of exposure to midday sun on the face and arms during the spring, summer, and fall should provide enough vitamin D for most light-skinned people in the United States. If you are dark-skinned, live in the far North, or have some other reason why you can’t go out in the sunshine, your doctor, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner can monitor your vitamin D levels and advise you about vitamin D supplements.

The Plate’s Not Much Better Than the Pyramid

The United States Department of Agriculture has ditched its creepy Food Pyramid, which for many people conjured up grisly images of Aztec human sacrifice.

aztecpyramid

Unfortunately, the USDA’s new “plate and cup” graphic still provides deadly nutritional advice. It still urges people to eat far more fat, cholesterol, calcium, and animal protein than is good for them. Thus, it will contribute to our major causes of death and disability in the United States, without doing much to solve any of our real public health problems.

myplateThe new “plate and cup” graphic is simply a way to communicate the lessons from the most recent edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Federal law requires these guidelines to be reviewed, and updated if necessary, every five years. The guidelines are created by a joint committee of the USDA and the US Department of Health and Human Services, with input from other federal agencies and the public. The 2010 edition was issued in January 2011.

Unfortunately, the guidelines are designed to address two nonexistent problems, while failing to help people avoid or recover from our biggest causes of death and disability. The guidelines are designed to ensure that Americans consume “enough” protein and calcium, even though it’s practically impossible to find any real human beings who have a true deficiency of either one. Meanwhile, the guidelines actually encourage people to eat foods that increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, low back pain, osteoporosis, and autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and type 1 diabetes.

Nutrition scientists have known for more than 100 years that human protein needs are easily met by any practical plant-based diet, as long as people are eating enough food to get enough calories. For more than 50 years, they’ve known that all of our common staple plant foods provide enough of all of the essential amino acids. People would get plenty of protein even if they ate nothing but potatoes; thus, there’s no justification for urging people to eat animal-based “protein foods.”

The “protein foods” that come from animals pose serious health risks. They are devoid of fiber and digestible carbohydrates. Instead, their calories come in the form of fat and protein. Any overload of protein stresses the liver and kidneys. Worse yet, animal proteins also tend to promote cancer, osteoporosis, and autoimmune disease. The heavy dose of calcium from dairy foods actually seems to increase, rather than decrease, the risk of osteoporosis.

The current guidelines also encourage people to eat far more fat than is good for them. The current guidelines do encourage people to eat less saturated fat, but to replace it with polyunsaturated fats. The result would be only a slightly lower risk of heart disease, offset by a higher risk of cancer. Most people should keep their fat intake to 10% or less of calories.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans do encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables and to replace refined grain products with whole-grain products. However, they fall far short of telling people how they can achieve optimal health. That’s a scandalous failure, considering how many Americans lack health insurance and thus have limited access to professional guidance, including advice from a registered dietitian.

Like our government’s failure to provide an efficient, publicly-financed universal healthcare system, the shortcomings of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans represent our government’s failure to “promote the general welfare.” Instead, our food and healthcare policies promote the welfare of the powerful corporations that finance our elections and whose lobbyists stalk the halls of Congress.

These problems have persisted for decades. They are not going to solve themselves. These problems will be solved only if health activists work to elect Representatives and Senators and a President who care far more about human beings than about corporations and if health activists provide such pressure during the “public comment” phase for the next edition of the guidelines that USDA will have no choice but to serve the American people instead of the food industry.