There's nothing revolutionary about telling women they need to get more calcium in their diet; it's just the kind of message that deserves being repeated. It's a medical fact that women build bone density until about the age of 30; after that, bones slowly lose density, which can lead to problems later, including arthritis and osteoporosis. And osteoporosis can lead to broken bones, which can be devastating for older people. So it's important to build up strong bones while you can -- and maintain them after 30.
"Women still need 1000 milligrams [of calcium] a day through the age of 50," says Michelle Weinbender, a registered dietitian at Sacred Heart. "They should have three servings of dairy products a day. If someone thinks they can't meet their calcium needs with dairy products, they definitely need a supplement."
Weinbender says there are also studies showing calcium to be good for controlling high blood pressure, and she emphasizes that getting the mineral from foods is better than from a pill. "There are benefits to eating the food," says Weinbender. "There are still so many things about what the vitamins and minerals do in the food that we don't know about."
Milk, of course, is a major source of calcium, but it's not for everyone. "I hear from a lot of women that they don't like milk or they don't tolerate milk," says Weinbender.
For those people, she recommends yogurt, which has the same amount of calcium as milk, or cheese and mozzarella, she points out, is lower in fat than many cheeses.
Supplements can be tricky; the FDA is considering establishing standards for dietary supplements, but for now what you see isn't always what you get. ConsumerLab.com tests supplements, and they found three to be the best for calcium: Citracal Calcium Citrate, Enzymatic Therapy OsteoPrime and Viactiv Soft Calcium Chews 500+D+K.
Or you can visit a natural foods store and get a personal consult from a specialist -- most of whom keep up on the quality and effectiveness of the various supplements they sell. Shelly Walker is a natural health consultant for Pilgrim's Natural Foods in Coeur d'Alene, and she says questions about calcium are common.
"I firmly believe in trying our best to get our minerals from natural forms, like herbs," Walker says. And she prefers supplements in liquid form, as she says they assimilate into people's bodies more easily. "Our cells are extremely intelligent, and they can choose to reject or receive what's being put into them." So Walker recommends supplements derived from whole foods and herbs. One of her favorite calcium supplements is made up of hibiscus, chamomile, fennel and spinach. Like Weinbender, Walker says the best thing to do is to eat whole foods. "In Europe, 85 percent of the stuff in their shopping cart is whole foods," she says. "Here, 85 percent is processed foods. The pendulum has swung too far."
Mom always said to eat your veggies, and now science is figuring out why that's such good advice. Fruits and vegetables are where antioxidants are found naturally, and although research can be contradictory on the exact benefits, "In general, we know antioxidants can help with the prevention of heart disease and some cancers," says Weinbender.
Vitamins A, C, D and E all are considered antioxidants, and Weinbender says the best way to get them into your diet is to suck it up and commit to five servings of fruits and veggies a day. If that sounds too hard and the thought of cancer hasn't focused your attention, Weinbender lays out a manageable approach: half a banana and half a cup of orange juice at breakfast (that's two), a cup of cooked veggies at dinner (that's two more) and a side salad (there's your five servings). Weinbender says many studies recommend more like nine servings a day, but she's pushing for five at the very least.
While you're working to get the right things into your diet, you also need to continue to keep the bad stuff out of it. Weinbender says the No. 1 killer of women is heart disease, and one of the leading causes of heart disease is eating too much saturated fat. Saturated fats are those that are solid at room temperature, like all animal fats. To make those fats liquid, chemists figured out you could hydrogenate them; unfortunately, that created a new kind of fat, the transfatty acid. While research is still young on the substance, it's considered particularly nasty.
"It took a nation of eating margarine for 20 years to learn that," says Weinbender of the impacts such oils have had on America's overall health.
Weinbender is realistic, knowing that people use butter, margarine and oils for cooking. She says to be aware of what you're eating. (In 2006, it should get easier, as FDA rules will mandate that all transfatty acid content be disclosed on the label.) She recommends canola oil or olive oil, and adds that corn oil is good for baking. As for the butter/margarine debate, "use what you want," she says (pointing to canola-based margarines as the best), "but try to cut back on both."
Shelly Walker at Pilgrim's in Coeur d'Alene says she gets a lot of questions about which oils to use. She recommends olive oil, but also points to grapeseed oil as one that does not change its structure when heated. She prefers butter to margarine, but likes it clarified. Walker also believes apple cider vinegar is a good addition to your diet, as she believes it helps dissolve fat.
Weinbender says there is lots of research showing that soluble fiber -- as in oatmeal -- and wine are good for raising your good cholesterol levels. Keeping meat consumption down, however, is the best way to keep excessive fat out of your diet, thereby reducing your risk of heart disease. She recommends using less meat than recipes call for, or even replacing it with beans or tofu.