The Deal on Dairy
When more is not better especially for our bones and overall health
Journals and research studies have conflicting results on milk consumption and osteoporosis, showing both a positive and negative impact on bone health.
What is not argue over, however is that dairy products are a good source of calcium, and calcium is the main mineral in bones. For this reason, health authorities recommend consuming dairy products every day.
However there are several concerns over regular dairy consumption. And what about those who are allergic or intolerant to dairy and those practicing a vegan lifestyle? Can we get enough calcium from other non-dairy food sources?
Why Calcium Is Important
Calcium is a mineral that the body needs for numerous functions, including building and maintaining bones and teeth, blood clotting, transmission of nerve impulses, and regulating heart beat.
About 99% of the body’s calcium is stored in the bones and teeth with the remaining 1% found in the blood, muscle, and other tissues.
Your body maintains blood levels of calcium within a narrow range. If you're not getting calcium from the diet, your body pulls it from your bones to sustain other functions that are more important for immediate survival.
If your dietary intake doesn't compensate for what is lost, your bones will lose calcium over time, making them less dense and more likely to break.
It is said that bone loss begins in our 30’s. Studies have shown that bone production can exceed the destruction of bones up to around age 30 when our hormones begin changing again for another stage of life.
Calcium is obtained for its various bodily functions through two methods:
- taking in food sources of calcium or supplements or
- breaking down of bones that store our calcium.
Good food sources include dairy products, which have the highest concentration per serving of highly absorbable calcium, and salmon, dark leafy greens, beans and legumes, and soy foods.
However it is important to highlight that calcium absorption can vary across all of these foods including foods like orange juice, cereals and nut milks that are fortified with calcium.
For example, calcium is found in spinach and chard, but they also contain oxalic acid, which combined with the calcium forms calcium oxalate, making the calcium less available to the body.
The Debate on Milk
The majority of us grew up drinking milk, if not from our mother then milk powder and eventually cow’s milk. However we are the only mammals that continue to take another animal’s milk into our adult years.
Oxidative Stress and Inflammation
D-galactose, a milk sugar found in milk has been shown to induce oxidative stress damage and chronic inflammation in animals, and such changes have been associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, bone loss, and muscle loss in humans.
Hormones & Antibiotics
There’s also concern with hormones, both natural and injected hormones in our livestock.
Dietary exposure to natural sex steroids in meat, dairy, and eggs can impact human development. But what is alarming is that our exposure to these hormones is increased 150 fold when drinking cow’s milk compared to our exposure from drinking water.
Antibiotics used in livestock is also cause for concern ever since farms have turned into factories using hormones and antibiotics in large amounts to meet the growing demands of meat. In the United States, over 80% of antibiotics are used in livestock while in Hong Kong, we’re no better, with farmers admitting to feeding antibiotics to healthy chickens.
Saturated & Trans Fat
We know that both saturated and trans fat raises the risk of heart disease, the third leading cause of death in Hong Kong. According to the USDA Nutrient Database, dairy, along with chicken fat and hot dogs contain up to about 1 to 5% trans fats.
Read more about trans fat found in Hong Kong bakeries.
So yes, though dairy may be a very rich source of calcium, there are other concerns that may weigh out its benefits as a good source of calcium.
More than just calcium
Achieving adequate calcium intake and maximizing bone stores during the time when bone is rapidly deposited (up to age 30) provides an important foundation for the future. But it will not prevent bone loss later in life.
The loss of bone with aging is the result of several factors, including genetic factors, physical inactivity, and lower levels of circulating hormones (estrogen in women and testosterone in men).
Postmenopausal women account for 80% of all cases of osteoporosis because estrogen production declines rapidly at menopause.
‘Milk, being a good source of calcium, isn’t necessarily the most critical factor for bone health, said Gardner, the Rehnborg Farquhar Professor and a professor of medicine.
“There are countries like Japan and India where the population is predominantly lactose-intolerant, where milk intake is low and hip fracture rates are also low. But many of those cultures do more weight-bearing activities than Americans,” he said. “It’s better to be physically active than drink milk as a way to strengthen your bones.”
In addition to calcium, magnesium, Vitamin D, C, E and K are also important for the absorption and utilization of calcium. It’s also important to note that calcium supplements come in a variety of different forms.
It is wise to choose calcium supplements with chelated forms of calcium such as calcium citrate, lactate or gluconate that are more easily absorbed by the body. Calcium carbonate is one of the cheaper forms of calcium and though it contains the highest amount of elemental calcium but it is not easily absorbed.
What I recommend as a nutritionist
A balanced diet that includes some calcium rich foods like almonds, sesame seeds, sardines and perhaps even some organic natural yogurt on occasion should be your starting point.
Starting at 9 years of age until 30, your calcium needs increase to 1300mg from 1000mg as this is when your body stores its calcium for subsequent years after when hormones begin changing and there is more of risk of calcium insufficiency.
However, because there are dangers of having too much calcium, like calcification, I tend to veer towards a calcium rich diet along with a supplement like Saludynam that offers a higher ratio of magnesium vs calcium so your intake of calcium even in a supplemental form is both safe and effective.
Salus’ Saludynam Calcium Magnesium mineral drink, offers the vitamins and minerals in a safe dosage and form to facilitate bone health.
Check out my bone building smoothie and calcium rich tahini dressing below.
Written By Denise Tam, Holistic Nutritionist