I knew it was big news, when I saw "calcium supplements" trending on my Yahoo browser. When was the last time you saw a dietary supplement up there with Kanye West and the other celebs you may or may not recognize? Not often, I bet.
As you probably know, the hype was about the study published in the medical journal Heart that analyzed calcium intake of close to 24,000 Germans over 11 years and correlated cardiovascular incidence. You read about it here twice, and elsewhere several times.
Researchers found that those taking a modest amount of calcium (820 mg per day) from all sources had a 31 percent lower heart attack risk. Interestingly, there was no significant benefit when calcium intake was more than 1,100 mg. So far, no big deal.
The disturbing results were on the supplements front. Those taking calcium supplements had an 86 percent greater risk of a heart attack than those not taking supplements. The most startling results were for those who took calcium supplements alone. These blokes doubled their risk of heart attack.
While the connection between calcium supplements and heart attack has been observed before , this time the risk found is greater. It's provocative news for the generation of women, like me, who follow a doctor-recommended regimen of calcium supplements in the hopes of avoiding the devastating effects of osteoporosis.
Who wants to discover that, through an effort to save our bones, we increase our risk of keeling over, because of a heart attack? Strong bones seem less urgent when we're dead. Eat yogurt and kale instead.
The studies' authors queried whether the spike in blood calcium levels from supplements, but not diet, may help explain the negative effects of supplements on heart health. Perhaps.
I wondered, however, if the results are less about calcium and instead about single-dosing any nutrient, without the right type or amount of complementary nutrients. In the case of calcium supplements, the missing player may be magnesium, if not others, that you would get naturally through a well-balanced diet -- or alternatively, via a well-designed supplement program.
Before you flush your calcium supplements down the toilet, consider that calcium, like all minerals, has antagonists.
By taking too much of one dietary mineral without its antagonist or, better said, its "best buddy," you risk depleting your best buddy -- not good in any relationship, but especially with diet. It's why you ought to take supplements with caution. Single-dosing of nutrients, especially minerals, can lead to overdose of one and deficiency in another. This happens with zinc and copper; we need both, but in limited amounts and balanced ratio.
In the case of calcium, magnesium is a best buddy.
What does magnesium do? Among benefits like bone health, magnesium is essential for healthy vascular function and muscle contractions. Not surprisingly, one symptom of magnesium deficiency is myocardial infarction, aka a heart attack.
When I read the study; magnesium and its connection with calcium jumped to mind -- it gave me pause before I pushed the flush lever on my supply.
Perhaps the results of significantly increased heart attack risk in the calcium supplement alone group can be explained in part by the study participants taking significant doses of calcium without adequate intake of magnesium, either through diet or supplement. The authors say they didn't evaluate the types of supplements in the calcium plus supplement group; 45 percent of the participants didn't report the name of their supplements, so we don't know whether magnesium was a player in the results or not.
The magnesium or missing cofactor explanation is not one the researchers or many commentators have raised. Even the supplements industry's response doesn't mention it -- despite the link between magnesium and heart health being old news.
The theory seems worth exploring especially when the study suggests that calcium, consumed through diet and supposedly providing a mix of complementary nutrients, seems to be heart-protective.
Answers to these questions could make the results of this current study, less a cautionary tale about calcium supplementation than calcium-induced magnesium deficiency or perhaps an analogous effect with other nutrients. On a broader scale, perhaps the study really is about the dangers of single-dosing any nutrient without an array of complementary nutrients, ideally obtained through a well-balanced diet, or, failing that, supplements containing a complex of nutrients.
After the latest hoopla, I am convinced we jump on and off the nutritional bandwagon as quickly as we take to read one prospective study or, failing that, a study abstract or news headline.
Some nutrients are the craze (I think today of vitamin D, of which some folks feel they can't get enough); while others are on the outs (calcium, this month). It's like trending on Yahoo -- you're hot for a while and then suddenly... you're not.
We forget that supplements are just that, supplements, not substitutes, to a well-balanced diet that contains a wide variety of foods that taste good and are good for us. It's from these whole foods that we should aim to get the bulk of our nutrients; supplements will always be second-best, but maybe the best in a bad situation, when fresh, whole food is unavailable or we suffer allergies or intolerances to dairy or other fare, preventing us getting what we need.
For my part, I'll continue to suck back the yogurt and take my low-dose calcium supplements my doctor suggests for my bones, and continue the running and weights. I take some comfort knowing that the pills I'm popping contain a 2:1 ratio of calcium to magnesium, along with some vitamin D.
I am content that my diet and health have more to do with good food and healthy living than mega-dosing whatever vitamins and minerals may be trending... or not... on Yahoo.
For more by Mary Bradley, click here.
For more on new research, click here.