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Osteoporosis and Nutrition

Part 1 of 2 - The Role of Calcium and Other Nutrients on Osteoporosis

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Updated May 25, 2006

Nutrition is one of many factors that influence bone mass. Dietary intake can also impact the tendency to fall and plays a significant role in maintaining a soft tissue cushion to protect the skeleton from the impact of a fall.

Calcium and Calcium Balance

Bone serves as the reservoir for 99% of the body's total calcium. Calcium is an essential nutrient for bone health. It is also needed for the heart, muscles and nerves to function properly and for blood to clot normally. The body loses calcium every day through:

  • urine
  • feces
  • sweat
  • the skin
  • the hair
  • the nails
  • The lost calcium is normally replaced by calcium in the diet. When the diet does not contain enough calcium to offset such losses, the body breaks down bone to release calcium needed to accommodate these physiologic demands.

    Many other nutrients affect bone health, too, because they impact the absorption or excretion of calcium. Calcium balance-not just intake-is necessary for healthy bones. This balance is dependent on the absorption rate of calcium consumed as well as the rate of (mostly urinary) calcium excretion. For example, in a study of 560 healthy women, one researcher demonstrated that only about 10% of the variance in calcium balance among these women was explained by differences in their calcium intakes and absorption only explained another 15%. Urinary losses explained slightly more then 50 percent.

    Nutrients Affecting Calcium Balance

    Several nutrients significantly influence calcium balance:

    Vitamin D

    Vitamin D has a positive impact on calcium balance, as it increases calcium absorption in the gastrointestinal tract. The most readily available source of vitamin D is exposure to direct sunlight. Vitamin D is also found in fatty fish, eggs, liver, butter, fortified foods such as milk and multivitamins. Vitamin D deficiency may be a problem among some elderly, those in institutional settings, and some people with chronic neurological or gastrointestinal diseases.

    Protein

    Protein is essential in our diets to build tissue during growth and to repair and replace tissue throughout the life cycle. It is also needed for fracture healing and proper function of the immune system. Protein deficiency is an important factor contributing to death, institutionalization, and loss of independence among the elderly following hip fracture.

    However, protein also increases the body's need for calcium by increasing calcium excretion. Excess protein in the diet is used by the body for energy, just like fats and carbohydrates. However, as protein is burned for energy, it produces a chemical called sulfate, which the body excretes through the kidneys. Sulfate increases the excretion of calcium.

    It is generally believed that most Americans exceed the recommended intake for protein:

  • 44 grams for women
  • 56 grams for men
  • Sodium

    Sodium (and chloride), the components of table salt, increase the calcium requirement by increasing urinary calcium excretion. Individuals with low salt intakes may be able to maintain calcium balance at low calcium intakes, while those with more typical U.S. salt intakes will have higher calcium requirements.

    Oxalate

    Oxalate is a nutrient that increases the calcium requirement by interfering with calcium absorption in the same food (not in others). Spinach, for example, is an extremely nutritious food, but its calcium is not absorbed because it is chemically bound to the oxalates that are present. However, eating spinach with cheese would not affect the absorption of calcium from the cheese. Foods high in oxalates include spinach, rhubarb and sweet potatoes.

    Phosphorous

    Some concern has been expressed that there may be too much phosphorous in the North American diet, particularly since phosphorous (in the form of phosphoric acid) is a constituent of cola beverages and because phosphate is added to many processed foods.

    Phosphorous may increase the body's need for calcium by interfering with calcium absorption. There is no scientific consensus that current levels of phosphorous intake are, by themselves, harmful. There is, however, general agreement that today's higher phosphorous intakes would be entirely safe in individuals with normal kidney function if calcium intakes were at recommended levels.

    Caffeine

    The amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee can reduce calcium absorption by a few milligrams, but that loss can be easily offset by adding a tablespoon or two of milk. Much of the apparently harmful effect of caffeine appears to be due not to the caffeine itself, but to the fact that caffeine-containing beverages are often substituted for milk in the diet.

    Fiber

    Adequate fiberintake is necessary to aid digestion and prevent several chronic diseases such as colon cancer and heart disease. Fiber has a minimal effect on the absorption of calcium. The fiber in wheat bran is most likely to interfere, but unless the intake level is extreme, this is not a significant problem.

    Go On To Part 2 --- Osteoporosis and Nutrition --->

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