The idea that protein leaches calcium from the bones has been around for a while. It is related to the notion that protein, especially from animal foods, increases blood acidity. The body then uses its main reservoir of calcium, the bones, to reduce blood acidity. Chris Masterjohn does not agree with this idea. This post generally supports Chris’s view, and adds a twist to it, related to plant protein consumption.
The “eat-meat-lose-bone” idea has apparently become popular due to the position taken by Loren Cordain on the topic. Dr. Cordain has also made several important and invaluable contributions to our understanding of the diets of our Paleolithic ancestors. He has argued in his book, The Paleo Diet, and elsewhere (see, e.g., here) that to counter the acid load of protein one should eat fruits and vegetables. The latter are believed to have an alkaline load.
If the idea that protein leaches calcium from the bones is correct, one would expect to see a negative association between protein consumption and bone mineral density (BMD). This negative association should be particularly strong in people aged 50 and older, who are more vulnerable to BMD losses.
As it turns out, this idea appears to be correct only for plant protein. Animal protein seems to be associated with an increase in BMD, at least according to a study by Promislow et al. (2002). The study shows that there is a positive multivariate association between animal protein consumption and BMD; an association that becomes negative when plant protein consumption is considered.
The study focused on 572 women and 388 men aged 55–92 years living in Rancho Bernardo, California. Food frequency questionnaires were administered in the 1988–1992 period, and BMD was measured 4 years later. The bar chart below shows the approximate increases in BMD (in g/cm^2) for each 15 g/d increment in protein intake.
The authors reported increments in BMD for different increments of protein (15 and 5 g/d), so the results above are adjusted somewhat from the original values reported in the article. Keeping that in mind, the increment in BMD for men due to animal protein was not statistically significant (P=0.20). That is the smallest bar on the left.
Does protein leach calcium from the bones? Based on this study, the reasonable answers to this question are yes for plant protein, and no for animal protein. For animal protein, it seems to be quite the opposite.
Even more interesting, calcium intake did not seem to be much of a factor. BMD gains due to animal protein seemed to converge to similar values whether calcium intake was high, medium or low. The convergence occurred as animal protein intake increased, and the point of convergence was between 85-90 g/d of animal protein intake.
And high calcium intakes did not seem to protect those whose plant protein consumption was high.
The authors do not discuss specific foods, but one can guess the main plant protein that those folks likely consumed. It was likely gluten from wheat products.
Are the associations above due to: (a) the folks eating animal protein consuming more fruits and vegetables than the folks eating plant protein; or (b) something inherent to animal foods that stimulates an increase in the absorption of dietary calcium, even in small amounts?
This question cannot be answered based on this study; it should have controlled for fruit and vegetable consumption for that.
But if I were to bet, I would bet on (b).
Promislow, J.H.E., Goodman-Gruen, D., Slymen, D.J., & Barrett-Connor, E. (2002). Protein consumption and bone mineral density in the elderly. American Journal of Epidemiology, 155(7), 636–644.