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Calcium and a high protein diet

Published 2 October, 2009

Does a high protein diet cause osteoporosis?

If you're coeliac like me, you're probably aware of the increased dangers of osteoporosis due to impaired calcium absorption. And indeed, my BMD scans (bone mass density) have shown that I am osteopoenic in certain areas of my body.

At my (youngish) age, low bone density is somewhat worrying!

And due to my range of food intolerances, I am pretty much on a meat, fish and veg diet, with a high proportion of protein to make up the calories.

Protein is supposed to leech calcium from the bones

With my high protein diet, I have always been worried about the effect this would have on my calcium balance. Apparently, the more protein you eat, the more acidic your bodily environment becomes. Your body corrects this by taking calcium from your bones.

Of late, I have been studying the Paleo diet, which fits pretty closely with what I have to eat to stay well anyway - which is a nice reframe on 'I can't eat anything' :)

And it struck me how strange it was that cavepeople could build hefty skeletons without necking down piles of calcium tablets and dairy every day. I mean, just where were they getting their calcium from precisely?

The Vitamin D element

There has been much talk of Vitamin D lately and its central role in all sorts of diseases, and the fact that most of us in the industrialised north are Vitamin D deficient.

Vitamin D also happens to be of great importance for bone mineralization, as I understand it. So I take Vitamin D supplements. Your caveman didn't have to of course, because he ran around all day in the sun. (At least when he lived near the equator).

But the second part of the protein/calcium bone picture is even more fascinating, especially for coeliacs.

A study on the effects of a high protein diet on calcium metabolism found:

"this study indicates that adding meat to the diet does not adversely affect calcium retention and bone metabolism in postmenopausal women."
http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/content/short/133/10/3237

BUT (and this is the exciting bit) - this only held true if they replaced grain calories with protein, not if they replaced vegetable and fruit calories.

So in other words, eat loads of protein if you like, but don't do it in the form of burgers-in-a-bun. Eat a good, healthy, balanced diet - without the grains (can anyone say P-A-L-E-O) and your bones will be as happy as larry.

And when you think about it, it just makes sense. The human body has evolved to extract its calcium from animals, fish, nuts, fruit and veg, and not from calcium pills. Or the by-products of dairy milk.

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