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Most people who have had heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels. The real culprit behind the atherosclerosis that leads to cardiovascular disease may be phosphates, particularly the kinds of phosphate that are added to whiten and light food.

At least for some of us, the high-cholesterol theory of heart disease has been thoroughly discredited. The fact remains, of course, that something has to be causing the hardening of the arteries that leads to heart disease, and high on the list of probable culprits is a common chemical found in literally every kind of phosphate.

What Are Phosphates?

A phosphate is a chemical combination of phosphorus and oxygen. Every cell in every animal and every plant contains phosphates in the form of adenosine monosphate, adenosine diphosphate, and adenosine triphosphate, better known as AMP, ADP, and ATP, which almost all living organisms (with the exception of viruses) use to store energy.

Because they store energy, phosphates are particularly abundant in muscle tissue, although they also perform other functions throughout all tissues in all animals and plants.

It's Almost Impossible to Avoid Getting Enough Phosphate

You couldn't avoid phosphate in your diet if you wanted to. Just about the only way you can suffer a condition of low phosphate levels called hypophosphatemia is to develop a chronic metabolic condition, such as poorly controlled diabetes, an endocrine disease called hyperparathyroidism, or kidney disease, or by taking too many antacids, or through a condition called refeeding syndrome.

In refeeding syndrome, people who have eaten nothing at all for several days can suffer severe shortages of phosphate if they break their fast with a high-carbohydrate food rather than a high-protein food. Dangerously low phosphate levels can also result from severe diarrhea.

Most of the time, however, just about any diet provides the body with plenty of this mineral. Normal food intake provides about 1000 mg of phosphate every day. The bones use about 300 mg of phosphate per day, and another 300 mg of phosphate per day are lost with bowel movement and in the form of dead skin. Since the body absorbs about 60 to 70% of the phosphate in food, it is relatively rare to have a problem low phosphate levels.

Some Foods Are Particularly High in Phosphate

On the other hand, it's relatively easy to get too much phosphate. Phosphate is used as a meat preservative. Baking powder (used in making non-yeast breads and cookies) is loaded with it. Phosphates are used to keep the juices from running out of cooked meats, especially deli meats. Pudding mix, cocoa mix, and powdered fruit drinks are likewise high in phosphates, and phosphates are used as whitening and lightening agents in soft drinks (to keep brown drinks from turning black) and some, although not all, soft drinks. (There are not phosphates in club soda or mineral water.)

Generally speaking, any high-protein diet is also high in phosphate. If you add protein when you cut out carbohydrates to lose weight or to manage diabetes, especially if you like to nibble on deli meats and smoked meats, you will be getting considerably more than the 1,000 mg of phosphate per day in a standard reference diet.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Dhingra R, Sullivan LM, Fox CS, Wang TJ, D'Agostino RB Sr, Gaziano JM, Vasan RS. Relations of serum phosphorus and calcium levels to the incidence of cardiovascular disease in the community. Arch Intern Med. 2007 May 14. 167(9):879-85.
  • Gutiérrez, Orlando M. Increased serum phosphate and adverse clinical outcomes: unraveling mechanisms of disease. Current Opinion in Nephrology & Hypertension: May 2011 - Volume 20 - Issue 3 - p 224–228. doi: 10.1097/MNH.0b013e328343ea70.
  • Photo courtesy of Joint Base Lewis McChord by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/jblmpao/7268233136/
  • Photo courtesy of Melissa Wilkins by Flickr : www.flickr.com/photos/melissambwilkins/8444130793/