February 2018 Issue
Senior Wellness: Osteoporosis Patients With Comorbidities — All Foods Can Fit
By Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN
Vol. 20, No. 2, P. 50
Older patients rarely present with a single disease or condition. As dietitians, it's important to recognize that those who come to us for nutrition counseling often have real and perceived competing issues. When seeking counseling on bone health, patients with lactose intolerance, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes often are concerned about dietary changes that may conflict with these health issues. However, data from well done studies support an "all foods (and supplements) can fit" approach to counseling osteoporosis patients with comorbidities.
Calcium Supplements and Heart Disease
Concerns about heart disease and calcium supplements are likely the result of media headlines about the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study and the emergence of arteriole calcification as a measure of heart attack risk.1 Results of the EPIC study showed, as have other observational studies, that taking calcium supplements was related to a statistically significant increased risk of myocardial infarction.2 Dietary calcium was related to a 30% decreased risk of myocardial infarction.
When the study was published, media headlines proliferated with messages warning the public of the "dangers" of taking calcium supplements. However, valid criticisms of the study largely were ignored in media accounts and among consumers. Since the study was observational, causal conclusions are inappropriate, as confounders could explain the association. In the study cohort, only 3.6% of the participants were taking calcium supplements, so this segment of the population was underrepresented. Finally, there were only seven documented heart attacks in the cohort, skewing the results. The Women's Health Trial, a large randomized controlled trial, didn't show that calcium supplementation caused heart attacks, strokes, or CVD.3 To address the issues of arterial calcification, cardiac CT was conducted in a subset of 754 women in the supplement group. They found no association between calcium supplement use and coronary artery score. Furthermore, in the women not taking adequate calcium at baseline, calcium supplement use statistically significantly reduced the risk of hip fracture.
Based on these data, dietitians can reassure patients at risk of heart disease who can't get the calcium they need through dietary sources that calcium supplementation isn't only safe for them but also necessary for their bone health. However, it's prudent to recommend appropriate doses of calcium supplements after an accurate assessment of dietary intake and also avoiding excessively high doses. The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for calcium is 2,000 mg per day.4 Since there are no demonstrable benefits in exceeding 1,200 to 1,500 mg of total calcium per day, RDs should advise patients to stay well below the UL.
Some patients prefer to obtain some or all of their calcium through dietary sources. They may have experienced stomach upset from calcium supplements or had other negative experiences with them. For patients at high risk of kidney stones, dietary calcium is recommended because of its association with a lower risk of calcium oxalate stone formation. Some patients simply prefer a more natural approach to their bone health. However, they may have concerns about high-calcium foods, in particular dairy foods, with regard to other health issues.
Dairy, Heart Disease, and Hypertension
In addition to taking calcium supplements, patients at risk of heart disease also are concerned about possible effects of dairy foods on blood lipids. Low-fat and fat-free dairy always have been reasonable options for heart patients who also have bone health concerns. However, recent data strongly suggest that even high-fat milk and cheese are heart-neutral options. A recent dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies found no associations between total dairy (both high fat and low fat) and mortality, coronary heart disease, or CVD.5 Total fermented dairy foods (including fermented cheeses, sour milk, and yogurt) were slightly inversely associated with mortality and CVD risk.
Patients often are particularly concerned about eating cheese and say they like cheese but can't eat it because of high cholesterol levels. While most observational studies show no or a negative correlation between cheese intake and risk of heart disease, one randomized dietary intervention showed that a relatively large intake of hard cheese actually lowered LDL cholesterol levels when compared with butter of equal fat content.6 Cheese and butter intake during the intervention were calculated to comprise 13% of the participants' caloric needs. For the participants in the medium-energy group, this amounted to approximately 5 oz of cheese per day. Cheese intake resulted in a 6.9% reduction in LDL cholesterol levels when compared with comparable butter intake and no difference in LDL cholesterol levels when compared with participants' habitual diets. The researchers speculated that the calcium, protein, or the fermentation could explain the study's findings.
For patients with hypertension, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet with sodium restriction may be a dietary pattern that improves both bone health and blood pressure. The DASH diet is a plant-based diet that includes low-fat dairy foods. This dietary pattern has been shown to significantly reduce blood pressure.7 Researchers also have compared the DASH and the DASH with low sodium with a control group for bone turnover and calcium excretion.8 The DASH diet contained 1,250 mg of calcium primarily through dairy foods compared with 450 mg in the control group. It was also higher in potassium from dairy, fruits, and vegetables (4,700 mg vs 1,700 mg) and magnesium from nuts and seeds (500 mg vs 160 mg). After 30 days, several markers of bone turnover were reduced in the participants on the DASH diet compared with the controls. There were no differences between the two groups for calcium excretion. However, there was a significant decrease in calcium excretion with the reduction of sodium to 1,150 mg in both the control group and the DASH group.
It's reasonable to advise patients who would like to use dairy foods as sources of calcium—particularly fermented dairy—that these foods are unlikely to have a negative effect on heart health. Moreover, reducing sodium may offer additional benefits for both blood pressure and bone health. However, reducing sodium to 1,150 mg per day may be challenging for many people. The DASH diet's high content of fruits and vegetables may have a very modest positive effect on bone health due to an alkaline effect on body pH.9 However, studies show inconsistent results with alkaline diets so suggesting them as an approach to managing osteoporosis isn't recommended.10
Dairy and Obesity
Consumers often perceive dairy foods as fattening and counterproductive to weight management.11 However, there's little evidence that dairy foods contribute to obesity to a greater extent than any other food group. In fact, a 2016 prospective cohort study found an association between eating high-fat dairy foods and less weight gain over 11 years in middle-aged and elderly women.12 Low-fat dairy, dietary calcium, and calcium supplements weren't associated with weight gain. However, this and other observational studies can't establish a causal relationship between high-fat dairy and less weight gain. Still, it's reasonable to assure patients who'd like to add dairy foods to their diets that they're no more likely to cause weight gain than other foods, and that high-fat dairy foods are associated with better weight control as they age. Counseling should include helping patients monitor their weight with the addition of any foods to their dietary patterns.
Dairy and Lactose Intolerance
Some patients may express a desire to eat and drink more milk products but believe they suffer from lactose intolerance.13 Lower lactase levels leave undigested lactose in the gut. The large intestine attempts to ferment the undigested lactose resulting in gas, abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Patients may perceive themselves to be lactose intolerant due to their symptoms after eating or drinking dairy foods. However, a hydrogen breath test is recommended for an accurate diagnosis. If a patient wants to include dairy as a source of calcium but is lactose intolerant, there are many options.14 Drinking smaller amounts of milk throughout the day, lactose-free milk and other products that are treated with lactase, and filtered milk with a lower carbohydrate content such as Fairlife often are well tolerated. Some patients can tolerate yogurt, likely due to bacterial fermentation of lactose. Hard cheeses are low in lactose and may be well tolerated. Since every patient's symptoms and level of intolerance are different, keeping a food record and tracking symptoms can help the patient and the RD develop a workable plan.
For patients who don't care for drinking or eating dairy products, are vegan, or have severe symptoms with lactose intolerance (or a milk protein allergy), calcium-fortified products such as soymilk, almond milk, and calcium-added orange juice can help patients achieve adequate intakes of calcium. Always advise these patients to shake these products well before pouring, as the calcium may sink to the bottom of the container.
Patients often perceive nutrition recommendations for bone health to be at odds with their other diseases and conditions. However, dietitians can help patients develop an evidence-based calcium regimen based on their personal needs, likes, dislikes, and desired lifestyle choices.
— Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN, is an assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) department of nutrition sciences, where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses and directs the Nutrition Minor Program. She's also the patient educator at UAB's Osteoporosis Prevention and Treatment Clinic at the Kirklin Clinic and a weekly contributor on Birmingham's morning show Good Day Alabama. Follow her blog, The Kitchin Sink, at http://uabnutritiontrends.blogspot.com and on Twitter at @DrBethK.
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