From childhood on, we’ve all heard it: “Drink your milk.” “Milk does a body good.” “You never outgrow your need for milk.” And most of us have accepted these statements at face value. We know that calcium is necessary in a host of bodily functions and that it builds strong bones and teeth. So after each milk mustache, cup of yogurt, or calcium supplement, we mentally pat ourselves on the back for helping stave off osteoporosis and general physical deterioration. If some is good, more must be better. Right?
Maybe not. Thomas E. Levy, MD, JD, says that not only is our country’s commitment to calcium not bringing about the desired benefits; it’s undermining our health.
“Yes, calcium is essential for bodily function, but as is the case with many otherwise-healthy substances, pumping too much of it into our bodies is dangerous,” says Dr. Levy, author of Death by Calcium: Proof of the Toxic Effects of Dairy and Calcium Supplements (MedFox Publishing, 2013, ISBN: 978-0-615-88960-3, $29.95, www.deathbycalcium.com). “Believe it or not, most of the adult population has no need for significant calcium intake, and that need rapidly decreases with age.”
Here’s the truly concerning part: An excess of calcium reliably promotes heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, cancer, and other degenerative diseases. Needless to say, that’s not why you’re faithfully taking those supplements.
“Understandably, most people are shocked to hear this,” Dr. Levy concedes. “Due to decades of convincing campaigns and marketing ploys, millions have embraced the ‘the more milk, the better’ myth and other related misconceptions.”
In his book, Dr. Levy presents compelling scientific evidence that systematically debunks much of what Western society believes about calcium. The book explains why calcium is dangerous in excess quantities, why limiting it promotes health, and provides strategies to help readers begin to get their calcium levels in balance.
Here, Dr. Levy addresses eight dangerous misconceptions about calcium and osteoporosis you probably accept as fact:
Misconception 1: Calcium is good for you. There’s a reason why no one questions the popular wisdom that calcium is good for you: It seems completely plausible. After all, aren’t bones largely composed of calcium? Isn’t osteoporosis a calcium deficiency of the bone? It makes sense that drinking milk or downing calcium tablets will fix the problem!
“What people don’t realize is that while osteoporosis involves a lack of calcium in the bones, it does not mean that there is a calcium deficiency in the rest of the body or in the patient’s diet (more on that later!),” explains Dr. Levy. “And moving on from osteoporosis, excess calcium promotes a host of other health problems including heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and virtually all chronic diseases. In fact, it increases all-cause mortality by 250 percent.
“The bottom line is, there is no concrete evidence to support that calcium delivers any real health benefits—quite the opposite!” he adds.
Misconception 2: You need to eat dairy products to get enough calcium. If the government’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium—between 1,000 to 1,300 mg per day for most adults—were correct, loading your diet with dairy products would be an easy way to reach that goal. However, says Dr. Levy, not only is the government’s RDA far too high, the idea that you need dairy to get “enough” calcium is false.
“Cultures that drink little to no milk have a much lower incidence of osteoporosis than Americans,” he shares. “Actually, the average person’s need for calcium is more than adequately met with a diet that includes meat, eggs, and vegetables. If you want to consume dairy, that’s your choice—but don’t do so believing that avoiding these products will result in an inadequate intake of calcium.”
Misconception 3: If you have osteoporosis, you have a calcium deficiency. This statement isn’t entirely incorrect: If you have osteoporosis, you do have a calcium deficiency—in your bones. Because of this fact, many physicians and their patients believe that the entire body must be depleted of calcium as well. But that’s a dangerous assumption. Throughout the rest of your body, it’s actually likely that you have an excess of calcium.
“The problem with osteoporosis is that the body is unable to synthesize a new structural bone matrix and integrate calcium into it—an issue that more calcium doesn’t even begin to fix!” explains Dr. Levy. “In fact, much of the calcium leached from the bones simply moves to other parts of the body, where it does you harm. It’s both ironic and sad that because of this fundamental misunderstanding, so many motivated, health-conscious people are sabotaging their health in an effort to improve it.”
Misconception 4: Calcium supplements will help prevent broken bones. Yes, there are studies that indicate that calcium supplementation is effective in decreasing the incidence of fractures in osteoporosis patients. But if you look more closely, says Dr. Levy, you’ll uncover more questions than answers. Notably, most positive studies also included 800 or more units of vitamin D as a “co-supplement.” Vitamin D, by itself, will decrease the chances of osteoporotic fracture. And that’s not all.
“In some trials the number of subjects was very small, in others the duration was short, and in still others patient and observer bias wasn’t tempered by double-blind placebo control,” he comments. “Plus, some studies relied on the accuracy of the subject’s self-observation and memory, which is questionable. Could you accurately remember how much calcium you’ve taken over the past ten years (or even one year)? On the other hand, in my book, I cite numerous studies that collectively provide more than enough data to conclude: Calcium supplementation does not prevent bone fractures.
“Remember, it’s easy for various individuals and organizations to pick and choose the study results they’d like the public to believe, knowing that most people will take that information at face value,” he adds.
Misconception 5: Increased bone density means stronger bones. Let’s say that you have a rotting wooden fence bordering your yard. If you paint it with a new coat of bright white paint, it will look better, but the “fix” is only cosmetic—the fence’s underlying structure is still continuing to deteriorate. That’s essentially what happens when you use calcium supplements to treat bone density. Your bone density test score may well improve a bit with calcium supplementation, but this is not associated with stronger bones or a decreased risk of fracture.
“When you treat a disease like osteoporosis with increased calcium, the density can legitimately increase, but the quality of the bone itself doesn’t improve unless other important factors are addressed,” explains Dr. Levy. “The structural matrix of the bone still isn’t normal and has no greater resistance to fracture than the diseased bone before the new calcium deposition.”
Misconception 6: When you have osteoporosis, the biggest danger is breaking a bone. There’s no disputing that when a person with osteoporosis fractures a bone, it’s serious business. These fractures often cause incapacitation and other complications that may lead to death. But would you say that sustaining a fracture is more serious than suffering (or even dying) from a heart attack, stroke, or cancer? These are often the unrecognized consequences of osteoporosis.
“A groundbreaking study made it very clear that a fracture is not the major concern for a majority of osteoporosis patients,” says Dr. Levy. “It found that in nearly 10,000 postmenopausal women, there was a 60 percent increase in the risk of death for individuals in the lowest quintile of bone density compared to those in the highest quintile. And most of those deaths did not relate to a fracture.
“The likely reason is straightforward: The more advanced the osteoporosis, the more calcium has been released from the bones over time,” he explains. “This release literally showers all of the other tissues and organs in the body with a chronic excess of calcium—which, as I’ve already pointed out, is extremely detrimental to your health. There are many other studies that also support the conclusion that one of the biggest dangers of osteoporosis is the fact that it promotes and worsens so many other chronic diseases.”
Misconception 7: Vitamin D just serves to increase calcium absorption. Vitamin D plays an essential role in regulating and modulating calcium absorption and metabolism via its interactions with the bones, gut, and kidneys. But despite data that has been accumulating since the 1980s regarding the many other roles vitamin D plays, many doctors still approach it as being “only” another way to supplement calcium.
“Vitamin D plays a role in the metabolism of virtually all cells in the body and is known to have a direct effect on around 200 genes, so it’s very important,” Dr. Levy shares. “However, I strongly caution you not to seek out vitamin D in foods with high calcium content, since vitamin D facilitates and even ‘overdoses’ calcium absorption—which, as we’ve already covered, is not desirable.”
Misconception 8: You get all the vitamin D you need from the sun. This statement would be true if you spent a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes a day in the sun with enough skin area exposed, in a part of the world fairly close to the equator. But let’s be honest: For most of us, that’s just not going to happen.
“The modern way of living is very effective in shielding people from the sun so completely that even a large percentage of individuals who live in tropical climates are chronically deficient in vitamin D,” says Dr. Levy. “Therefore, for nearly everyone on the planet, vitamin D supplementation is a must in order to get its (bone) blood levels in the range that supports optimal bone health and general health. Again, just avoid getting your vitamin D in foods that also contain calcium!”
“A lot of fiction about calcium is currently accepted as fact,” concludes Dr. Levy. “But the bottom line is, raising calcium concentrations in your body is not as beneficial as you probably believe, and is often dangerous. You need to realize this, change your diet accordingly, and start taking steps now to reverse the damage.”