Health advice can be really confusing and some dogmas are just wrong.Today I am going to look at three common health myths; calcium makes your bones strong; statins and eating cholesterol diet are the best way to lower cholesterol and protect yourself from heart disease; and high fibre wholemeal bread helps keep you 'regular'.
The old adage that ‘Bones are made of calcium, and milk is rich in calcium, so drink milk to strengthen bones.’ is misleading at best. The general perception is that a lack of calcium increases the risk of a thinning of the bones as you age and the sales of calcium supplements have remained strong, especially amongst women.
However, evidence clearly shows that there is little correlation between rates of osteoporosis and calcium intake from milk. And recent studies also show that giving calcium only supplements alone doesn’t significantly reduce the risk of fractures in postmenopausal women. So does taking extra calcium help?
The RDA for calcium is between 800 and 1200mg, with the average dietary intake around 900mg. Some people incorrectly supplement 1,000mg of calcium on top of their normal daily intake. The problem with this is that studies show that in men, those supplementing more than 1,000 mg of calcium a day had a higher risk of cardiovascular death, but not stroke related deaths. Calcium, particularly if taken without magnesium and vitamin D, encourages deposition in arteries and raises blood pressure.
So what does this mean? It means that calcium for bone health needs to be taken with appropriate co-factors to be effective, which include vitamins D and K and also with minerals such as magnesium, zinc and boron. Most of which can be achieved by taking a good multi-vitamin.
If you don’t consume dairy products, you must include seeds, nuts and beans on a regular basis, this way you can achieve around 800mg. Additional calcium can be supplemented using a good multi-vitamin tablet, which should also contain co-factors such as magnesium and vitamins D. Zinc and boron are also important.
Some nutritionists recommend getting at least 1,200-1,500mg of calcium in later life, which means supplementing a further 400-700mg of calcium in total. This should not be a problem, if the co-factor bone-building nutrients are also included, also at least 40mcg of vitamin K. Natural sources of vitamin K include spinach, Brussels sprouts and Swiss chard, which are also good sources of calcium and magnesium.
Maintaining exercise, particularly weight bearing, is also important for maintaining healthy bones. Make sure that you exercise regularly, not only for your bones but to keep your joints supple as well.
Every few months the leading health news story is that by taking a daily cocktail of drugs as a polypill which includes statins and aspirin, all our ills will be solved. However, the evidence is not as clear as you are lead to believe. Statins appear to be good at lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol, but are pretty poor at raising good HDL cholesterol, they also have many common side effects such as; cold symptoms, headaches, nose bleeds, nausea, digestive problems and muscle aches & pains. Why is HDL cholesterol important? 40% of cardiovascular problems occur in people who have low HDL cholesterol levels.
So before resorting to statins, there are other things you can do to help correct your cholesterol levels. These include following a strict Low GL diet and exercise program, encompassing an increase in plant sterols and soluble fibres (see Fibres below), increasing omega 3 fats (such as from oily fish) and reducing your stress. To help promote your HDL levels the supplementing of vitamin B, particularly Niacin (B3) is a good approach. According to a major review of what works in the New England Journal of Medicine, “the most effective way” is with vitamin B3 - niacin. Niacin also comes out top in a review of the drug trials to raise HDL which describes the new medications as “disappointing ”.
A number of studies have shown that niacin is effective not only in raising HDL – by up to 35% - but also in reducing LDL by up to 25%. It also reduces levels of two other markers for heart disease - lipoprotein A and fibrinogen. By way of comparison, statins only raise HDL by between 2% and 15%.
I recommend 1,000mg a day to lower raised LDL cholesterol and raise a low HDL cholesterol, however you must choose a non-blushing forms since niacin, in high doses, makes you blush.
Fibre is an important part of a healthy diet, helping to improve digestive health and may prevent health issues such as heart disease, constipation, weight gain and some cancers. However, contrary to popular belief, not all fibres are created equally. When people think of fibre they usually just think about the insoluble fibres such as those in wholemeal bread, wheat bran and some cereals. These can’t be digested and pass through the body unmodified, helping other foods through the digestive system and bowel.
However, there are soluble fibres that can be more beneficial especially for certain health conditions. The soluble fibres include those found in oats, some fruits such as apples and vegetables such as carrots and potatoes. Also chia seeds are a good source, which I like to add a teaspoonful to oats or a get up & go smoothie for breakfast.
Soluble fibres dissolve and become gel-like, absorbing lots of water, unlike wheat bran, for example, which absorbs very little. The best-known example is oat fibre or bran, rich in a type of fibre called beta-glucans, which, when added to or cooked with water become viscous giving porridge it’s glooky consistency. This soluble fibre helps to coat foods and the digestive tract in a way that slows down the release of sugars from food, effectively lowering the GL. It also attaches to cholesterol in the gut and helps eliminate it.
More on soluble fibres in my July newsletter here.
My Book, The 10 Secrets of 100% Healthy People , is a good place to start if you are concerned about improving your health and getting back the energy you are missing. This book shows you what it means to be 100% healthy and how to reach that place by helping you create your own personal action plan.
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You talk a lot about supplementing with vitamins etc but what if you are on a low income and cannot afford all these supplements - what then?
Patrick Holford, 2 Nov 2013
I sympathise that balancing a low income is very difficult. Changing your diet is the most important thing so try to do this as much as possible within your budget. See if there are any unhealthy habits you have that cost you money which you could cut down on. And look out for any offers we may have - we sometimes do giveaways and special offers on www.totallynourish.com. Good luck.