An Athlete's Guide To Calcium

I think we can all agree that strong bones are important for athletes. Anyone who disagrees can watch the replay of last year’s Louisville vs. Duke NCAA basketball game in which guard Kevin Ware snapped his tibia defending a 3-pointer. (Warning: if you don’t like seeing 6 inches of bone sticking out of someone’s shin, I recommend leaving Google’s SafeSearch: On.) Building muscle is key to bone health—muscles pull on tendons, which pull on bones, so stronger muscles require the body to create stronger bones to support them—but good nutrition is also crucial. Strong bones require adequate calcium intake, and while our first instinct may be to reach for a glass of milk to get that calcium, it’s actually the produce drawer we should turn to first.

1. Fruits + Veggies = Strong Bones

Your mother was right: you have to eat your veggies! Researchers found those who eat the most fruits and vegetables have denser bones. This is because fruits and vegetables are rich, not only in calcium, but in other nutrients, such as vitamin K, which is also crucial for bone health. Increasing your fruit and vegetable intake also gives your body the bonus of additional dietary fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Foods such as dark leafy greens, soy products, seeds, nuts and fruits offer a variety of calcium-rich foods into your meals. But what about the whole “Got Milk?” campaign? Doesn’t dairy give our bodies the same bone-friendly calcium benefits as apples and bananas? Contrary to popular opinion, the answer is, surprisingly, no.

2. No Calcium Loss

Fruits and vegetables strengthen bones better than dairy products. This may come as a shock, since we’ve been taught to look to dairy foods for calcium. But we’ve been fed this notion because the typical American diet is centered on animal foods, refined grains, and sugar, all of which are devoid of calcium. So, adding dairy as a calcium source to a mineral-deficient diet makes perfect sense—it’s certainly better than no calcium in the diet! However, the “meat and pasta” diet style most Americans indulge themselves comes with a price. Animal proteins induce calcium excretion in urine while fruits and vegetables rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, and other nutrients essential for bone health are alkaline (not acid-producing) so, they do not induce urinary calcium loss.

Compare the USDA Food Pyramid with Mike Bewley's NutraCarina Food Pyramid. The foundation for Coach Bewley's nutrition plan for athletes is based on vegetables and fruits. 

Compare the USDA Food Pyramid with Mike Bewley's NutraCarina Food Pyramid. The foundation for Coach Bewley's nutrition plan for athletes is based on vegetables and fruits. 

3. Calcium Absorption vs. Consumption

In fact, the debate about how much calcium is needed for proper bone health is further misleading. It’s not just about how much calcium you CONSUME, it’s the calcium you ABSORB that is the most important. For instance, many green vegetables have calcium-absorption rates of over 50 percent, compared with about 32 percent for milk. Many green vegetables and fruits contain lots of usable calcium, without the problems associated with dairy. Furthermore, you retain calcium better and don’t need as much when you don’t consume a diet rich in sodium, sugar, and caffeine.

Vitamin D is calcium’s sidekick. It is needed to absorb calcium effectively, so it is essential to have a good source of vitamin D in your balanced nutrition plan. According to the Institute of Medicine, people who spend enough time in the sun (20-25 minutes per day) get enough Vitamin D. However, if you work inside most of the day or your body has trouble absorbing the vitamin, you may need to look to whole foods for nourishment. That said, few foods in nature contain vitamin D. The flesh of fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel) and fish liver oils are among the best sources. Small amounts of vitamin D are found in beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks. You can also talk to your doctor about a Vitamin D supplement, if you feel you aren’t getting enough through your diet.

So, athletes: avoid weak bones. Strengthen your bones by building muscle in the weight room, and by eating calcium-rich foods at the dinner table. Choose foods that help your body absorb and retain calcium (I’m not sure Cheetohs are on that list) to keep your diet balanced and your bones strong, and you’ll be a healthy, unstoppable athlete.

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Mike Bewley, MA, CSCS, C-SPN, USAW-I is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. He is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Clemson University, a specalist in sports nutrition, and the founder of online nutrition platform NutraCarina.