To Supplement or Not


Should you take calcium supplements for bone health? This is a discussion that has recently revived between medical professionals and researchers.

Your body processes nutrients from food differently than those in a pill form, no matter the type of supplement. Nutrients from food are better absorbed and used in the body more efficiently without the side effects that can happen when taken synthetically.

This is true with calcium supplements. Current research shows there is little to no benefit from calcium supplements in preventing bone fractures – while eating calcium-rich foods is proven to reduce fractures and bone loss.

Calcium supplements were also found to increase the risk of colon cancer, kidney stones, and heart disease. In the case of colon cancer, polyps were found six to 10 years after patients starting calcium supplements. Kidney stones are more easily formed when using calcium supplements, but eating a high calcium diet had the opposite effect and actually decreased instances of kidney stones.

The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology both warn about the increased risk of heart disease related to calcium supplements. They can cause the arteries of the heart to harden and narrow, setting the stage for a heart attack. Taking calcium supplements can also trigger blood clots to form, leading to stroke. Yet people eating high amounts of calcium-rich foods were less likely to develop heart disease.

While most agree that getting calcium naturally is the best choice, some doctors feel there are situations where calcium supplements may be worth the risk – such as individuals whose blood tests show very low calcium levels, those eating very low calorie diets, or those who don’t eat a variety of foods. That is a decision made between the doctor and their patient.

Cow’s milk is usually the first food that comes to mind when thinking about calcium sources. However, this is not the only (or best) way to get calcium. You can absorb the same amount of calcium contained in one cup of cow’s milk by eating one serving of tofu, soymilk, Chinese mustard greens, or canned fish with bones.

Fish soup is a great food for bone health, as the broth contains calcium, magnesium, zinc, and other nutrients found in the bones. Throw in some limu kala or limu alani for an extra boost of all these minerals.

During the ʻAi Pono programs conducted on Molokaʻi, I spent time talking to the chef to learn his “thought process” when planning the menus. Herbert Hoe was an excellent cook, who would creatively use common local ingredients to make the most ʻono meals. He would cut the fish for use in stew or steam it Chinese-style, then boil the bones to make the base of the stew or soup, adding in ‘ulu, kalo, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables he had on hand. No part of the fish was wasted and everyone benefitted from this bone-building, gut-healing broth.

So my answer to the question I posed earlier? Ditch the supplements and go natural.