Stroll through your local grocery store, and you’ll immediately notice America’s love affair with grain. Entire aisles are devoted to breakfast cereals, bread, rolls, crackers and cookies. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount of grain most Americans consume has grown by nearly 40 percent since the 1970s, adding up to 500 extra calories to our diets each day.
That increase may have an insidious effect on the body. According to Bess Dawson-Hughes, M75, it may be linked to bone loss late in life.
Dawson-Hughes is the director of the Bone Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts. She says that most humans reach their maximum bone density by age 25—but after that, things tend to go downhill, especially in middle age. Most men lose about 1 percent of their bone mass annually after age 50, and women lose even more.
“At menopause, women lose roughly 3 percent of their bone mass annually for about five to eight years,” she says. That means more than 20 percent of the body’s total bone density can disappear in less than a decade, leading to osteoporosis, painful fractures and a diminished quality of life.
Losing a certain amount of bone density is a normal part of aging, Dawson-Hughes notes, but the exact mechanism behind that bone loss is still unclear. She thinks it may have something to do with the way the body metabolizes all those cereals we’re eating.
Because grains contain sulfur compounds, they break down into byproducts like sulfuric acid, which in turn leads to an increase in the body’s overall acidity. Although that sounds awfully dramatic on paper, the actual change in blood pH is thankfully minute—on the order of a few tenths of 1 percent—yet even this tiny change may trigger bone loss.