Adam's Corner

“Is it good for me?” calcium | multivitamins | saturated fat | coffee

1. Is coffee bad for me?

Okay, so it’s a little more complicated than yes/no. There is no convincing evidence that a reasonable amount of coffee is in any way unhealthy for the vast majority of adults. In fact, the preponderance of the evidence strongly suggests that coffee is linked to significant health benefits almost across the board.

Granted, it’s sometimes hard to tease out correlation vs. causation here. Maybe people who drink coffee are already more motivated, early risers, more likely to go to the gym, etc., etc.

We see strong evidence that coffee protects the liver in both chronic alcoholics and healthy adults. We see some evidence of cancer risk reduction (skin, liver, stomach, colon). And while we see that too much coffee may hurt blood sugar and blood pressure in the short term, longer-term consumption of more moderate amounts of coffee may actually improve both parameters.

Nurses who consume coffee regularly report improved mood, and even lower suicide rates. Even Chinese medicine gets into the discussion, as it might suggest that the strong bitter taste functions as a corrective in diets heavily weighted towards fats and sugars; and personalities prone to temper and irritability. See http://www.itmonline.org/arts/coffee.htm for more.

On the flip side, we see that caffeine may increase bruxism (grinding your teeth). And while coffee’s bitterness can stimulate digestion, it may be overstimulating for some. Finally, as a diuretic, coffee can lead towards dehydration if you don’t watch your fluid intake; it can increase your excretion of minerals.

Also, this should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyways: if you don’t like how coffee makes you feel, it’s probably not right for you. Certainly, don’t go out of your way to drink it if it makes you feel jittery and anxious. Generally speaking, if you drink coffee at lunch, and it’s still keeping you awake by bedtime, you metabolize the caffeine differently than the rest of us, and coffee may not be the best choice for you.

Finally, few crops are as likely to be the product of coercive labor practices or even slave labor as coffee. Choose coffee that is the product of fair trade practices. We proudly brew Equal Exchange organic coffee.

The verdict: be reasonable about it, and it’s doing you a lot of good.

2. Is saturated fat bad for me?

The link between saturated fat and heart disease is real, significant, and incontrovertible – and vastly oversimplified.

At first we said all fats were bad. (Actually, that’s not true: a hundred years ago, we said all fats were good). Then we said, saturated fats are bad, but unsaturated fats are good. Then we said, no, some unsaturated fats (trans-fats) are bad, but other ones are good. Then we started looking at degradation, processing, etc., etc.

Today, we acknowledge that not all saturated fats are created equal. The difference between long-chain saturated fats found in meat vs. medium-chain ones in coconut vs. short-chain ones found in dairy (and produced by our healthy gut bacteria) is very real, and highly significant.

To my knowledge, there has not been a meaningful link established between short- and medium-chain saturated fats and any negative health outcome. In fact, there is some evidence (albeit inconclusive) that both types of saturated fat are actually good for us. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) may reduce the risk of heart disease, promote weight loss, and reduce dementia risk. Shortchain triglycerides can nourish the cells lining the intestinal tracts.

Even long-chain saturated fats may not be as bad as we once feared. In fact, 99% of the longchain saturated fats we consume come from meat, and the vast majority of meat in this country is poorly raised on feedlots; its saturated fats are delivered alongside the byproducts of feedlot husbandry: antibiotics residues, growth hormones, and high levels of pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid. Meat is usually consumed as part of a diet that is less than health-conscious. So, is the saturated fat the problem, or the hormones, antibiotics, arachidonic acid, French fries, and lack of vegetables that come along with it?

The evidence is still inconclusive. But I’m not alone in believing that the naturally occurring saturated fats that exist in pastured meat are not a problem.

3. Is calcium good for me?

Is it bad for me? For most of our lives, we’ve been hearing that “milk does a body good,” and that we “need to take our calcium.”

A major meta-analysis of clinical trials with calcium supplements for osteoporosis found a significant but still marginal reduction in fracture risk, but meanwhile, there was a concomitant increased risk of heart disease, statistically greater than the decreased risk of fracture. In other words, if we want to say that a stroke is “equal to” a fracture, then we might very well say that calcium supplements do more harm than good.

This is real data. This is good data.

HOWEVER, we need to add some giant asterisks to this data.

First, most of the research focused on calcium supplementation over a 6- to 18-month period. There’s a real possibility that fracture risk reduction simply takes longer to establish itself ( For example, the Nurses Health Study – the largest study on nutrition in the history of the U.S. – tracked over 77,000 women with 24 years of follow-up and found no link between calcium supplementation and stroke, and a reduced risk of heart attack.)

Second, the meta-analysis included only data from trials where calcium was given by itself. There’s a reason for this: if one trial was calcium with magnesium, another was calcium with vitamin D, a third was calcium with vitamin K2, the data wouldn’t be uniform. The conclusions wouldn’t be clean and simple.

However, when we look at research where calcium supplementation is combined with one or more of these other nutrients, we see the increased heart disease risk disappear – and the fracture risk decrease even more(2).

That’s because calcium isn’t the issue, as much as calcium management, within the body. When we unleash large amounts of calcium into the bloodstream, without the proper tools to guide it to its destination, it’s less likely to go to the right places, and more likely to go to the wrong ones.

How much calcium should we take? I’d rather answer how much calcium should we get (3) . Here, I’m going to defer to Walter Willett, the highly-respected head of the Nurses Health Study, and the chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Willet suggests 500- 700 mg a day. Yes, we’ve all heard the directives to take 1,200 mg (on top of whatever food we’re eating). But that really isn’t grounded in science.

In other words, calcium is good for us – if we take it the right way, and we don’t overdo it for no good reason.

4. My one doctor says that multivitamins are the cornerstone of health – she couldn’t imagine a day without them. My other doctor says they “just make expensive urine.” What gives?

It is almost impossible to draw sweeping conclusions about multivitamins from the published research. Some studies show minor benefits(4) . Some show no benefits(5) . But all of this research looks at only simple, basic, often synthetic multis. I’ve never seen a large, longitudinal study which has looked at a good multivitamin.

Bear with me while I step away from the research, and share my opinion: namely, that a good multivitamin is very good for us indeed.

So, what makes a multivitamin good? To begin with, we’re not just looking for higher and higher “megadoses” of the same old stuff. A good multivitamin contains organic minerals, and vitamins in their natural, active forms.

It should also contain more than just vitamins and minerals. It will have additional food concentrates meant to support the vitamins and minerals; antioxidants, and fruit and vegetable extracts. It will usually contain small, but not insignificant, amounts of nutrients protective to the liver, the immune system, and/or the metabolism as a whole. The idea being, there’s more to health than just vitamins. And a good “vitamin” understands that.

(2) Looking at the Women’s Health Initiative, even adding a low dose (400 iu) of vitamin D to 1,000 mg a day of supplemental calcium effectively eliminated any increased risk of heart disease in over 36,000 women tracked for seven years in this massive placebo-controlled trial. 

(3) In other words, diet + supplementation combined. 

(4) Actually, we see pretty significant benefits in developing nations, and with other populations prone to malnutrition. Less so in the U.S… 

(5) Not to point out the obvious, but when you average “some benefits” with “no benefits,” you still get… some benefits.

… Adam Stark

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