One of our loyal readers (okay, it was my mother, give me a break) posed this question the other day: “I get some of the stuff behind the Paleo diet, but you’re not getting enough calcium in your diet if you don’t consume dairy, right? Isn’t that bad for your bones and teeth?”
Naturally, I felt compelled to address this in an article. Not just because I want all of you to be informed, but also because I enjoy sharing the satisfaction of correcting my mother and proving her wrong. Per usual.
Robb Wolf, the Paleo King, has the answer to this question, but I’ll go ahead and steal his thunder by summarizing it for you: no, you are not being depleted of calcium with the paleo diet. In fact, you can improve your calcium absorption on the Paleo diet, sans dairy.
M-m-m-mama says to drink a lot of milk.
You heard me right. The high prevalence of osteoporosis and bone demineralization in the US has been well-documented over the years, but this is, according to Robb and Loren Cordain among others, all despite the fact that the US has one of the highest calcium intakes in the world. While you recover from the tremors of the earth-shaking knowledge bomb I just dropped, let’s explore the mechanisms behind this conundrum.
There are, as Robb will tell you, TWO parts to the calcium equation. The one that is in the spotlight is calcium consumption, but you also have to consider calcium absorption/excretion. What does this mean? Well, just because you’re consuming calcium doesn’t necessarily mean your body is absorbing it, or retaining it in the bones. Here are a few things that impair and/or aid calcium uptake:
-Acid/Alkaline Balance: When consumed by your body, foods are registered as either alkaline or acidic. The natural, healthy state of your body is slightly net alkaline, but (unsurprisingly), the average American diet is generally very acidic. In order to offset the acidity, your body has to tap into its alkaline stores, the largest of which just so happen to be the calcium salts in your bones. These are sent out to “neutralize” the acid, and are subsequently excreted in the urine. Bye-bye base. So, by eating a more alkaline-based diet (Paleo), you’re minimizing calcium depletion.
-Salt: Americans consume a lot of salt. Like, a lot. It impairs calcium absorption. Try to keep it low sodium.
-Vitamin D: Now here’s a blast from the past! I recall a certain article that urged you to “unleash the power of the sun”. All kidding aside, Vitamin D plays a huge role in facilitating calcium uptake. During the summer, it’s easy to get enough of the stuff, just stand outside for 10 minutes or so (sans sunblock). During the winter, especially in the northern latitudes, it becomes nearly impossible to get enough. Supplement.
-Gut Health: The health of your intestinal lining is also an important factor in calcium absorption. Due to the
Well mama's wrong again!
minimization of inflammatory foods, the Paleo diet has been shown to vastly improve gut health, and as a result, calcium uptake as well.
-Veggies Rule: Vegetables have a surprising amount (admittedly not as much as dairy, though) of calcium, and are generally absorbed by the body easier than via dairy.
-The Grain Factor: As covered previously, grains contain anti-nutrients (phytates) that block the absorption of several minerals, one of which is calcium. A high-grain and dairy-rch diet also promotes hyperinsulinemia, as both of these spike insulin. One of the effects of this condition is increased calcium excretion through the urine.
So as you can see, with the combined factors of increasing calcium absorption and decreasing calcium excretion, the Paleo diet can actually be more effective at staving off bone demineralization than taking in a lot of dairy. Take that one, mom!