Do we need more calcium to avoid osteoporosis, the progressive thinning of bones as we age? In the West, our doctors and industries are certainly telling us so. The dairy industry vigorously promotes the suggestion that unless we consume their products we will face an unpleasant and probably shrunken future.
Yet the data uncovered in China do not support this view. Although most Chinese consume much less dairy than we do and ingest lower amounts of calcium in general, they appear to be at a much lower risk for this potentially disabling disease. Hip fractures, for example, are only about one-fifth of what they are in the West—a striking difference.
Is it because the Chinese are more physically active? Or that they possibly adapt to a low-calcium diet? Or perhaps because they eat far less protein than we do in the West?
We know that high protein intakes result in calcium loss through the urine. High-protein diets—especially protein from animal foods—can cause the body to excrete more calcium than it takes in. For example, someone eating 142 grams of protein daily—which some Americans do—will excrete twice as much calcium in the urine as a person taking in a more moderate 47 grams. Because our bodies need calcium to regulate many different functions, such as the functioning of our muscles and nerves, the deficit induced by too much protein causes the body to withdraw more calcium from our primary calcium reserves—our bones! In turn, our bones become increasingly fragile.
To support optimal bone health, eat plenty of vegetables such as broccoli and collard greens. These foods contain a good amount of calcium without the drawbacks of high protein. One cup of broccoli, for example, contains 178 milligrams of calcium, while five dried figs have 135. With a target of perhaps 800 milligrams of plant-derived calcium daily, you shouldn’t find it that difficult to fill your quota. And here’s a bonus: vegetables contain boron, a mineral that helps keep calcium in the bones. Milk contains virtually none.
The Cornell-Oxford-China Nutrition project, conducted in mainland China and Taiwan, was a massive survey of over 10,000 families designed to study diet, lifestyle, and disease across the far reaches of rural China. By simultaneously investigating more diseases and more dietary characteristics than any other study to date, the project has generated the most comprehensive database in the world on the multiple causes of disease.
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