A complicated dairy issue

Monday, June 15, 2009

All I wanted to know was if human beings really NEED dairy products. That’s all. Simple question. The U.S. government, via its food pyramid, says we do. Vegans, on the other hand, say we can live quite healthily without it.

The answer to the question itself is pretty simple (no, we don’t really need dairy), but all the components of the answer had me researching more than I really wanted to on calcium and vitamin D and protein and osteoporosis and cancer. I was shocked to find there may be far more reasons to AVOID dairy and excess calcium than there are to consume it.

If you ask the average person on the street if they think we need dairy, they are likely to say, “yes, of course we do – we need the calcium.” And that’s the answer you’ll get just about everywhere if you try to look up WHY we need dairy products. As if dairy products are the only source of calcium. Take calcium out of that equation and nobody can think of a single reason why we should have two to three servings of milk every single day. I mean, seriously, even the freaking COWS don’t drink the stuff beyond infancy.

Studies that have shown a link between weight loss and dairy products actually point to the calcium as the weight loss trigger, not the actual dairy products.

I was reading a “scientific” study on the effects of calcium on weight loss and the ONLY calcium source they used in their studies was dairy. They claimed that women who did not take in enough dairy were overweight A second study showed that the more people reduced their consumption of dairy products over the six-year period examined, the more weight and body fat they gained and the bigger their waistlines grew. Which is all good news for calcium consumption, but it really doesn’t have a thing to do with dairy. They did not study the effects of the calcium from sources other than dairy.

So, getting down to the basics - why do we need calcium? Obviously because it strengthens bones and helps nerves and muscles to function properly. It’s crucial for blood clotting and heartbeat maintenance. But if you don’t get an adequate amount of calcium in your diet, your body will start hitting up your bones for the calcium it needs to function. And that’s not good. If the bone sucking continues too long, the result is osteoporosis.

All of that is pretty straightforward, but when I tried to find out how much calcium and how much vitamin D the average person needed on a daily basis, and how much IS required versus how much SHOULD be required, it all got complicated. And it gave me a headache. Since I don’t want to give YOU a headache, I’m just going to touch on the basics of the calcium controversy.

The US RDA for calcium is1000 mg – or 1200 mg if you are over 50.

Dairy is usually the most attractive source of calcium because of its perceived high concentrations (300 mg per 8-ounce glass of whole milk) – but it certainly isn’t the only source. A one-cup serving of a green, leafy vegetable is low in calories and high in calcium - spinach (350 mg), kale (250 mg) and broccoli (80 mg) are all excellent sources. And none of them have one bit of the saturated fat of dairy products.

Complicated points I don’t intend to get into but you should probably know: 1) Calcium needs vitamin D for absorption. Thirty to sixty percent of people do not get enough vitamin D for any calcium they ingest to be beneficial. 2) A high animal-protein diet causes calcium loss. The RDA for calcium is intentionally set higher than we really need to compensate for our animal-protein intake. 3) Calcium is not the only mineral involved in the prevention of osteoporosis. Magnesium, vitamin D, boron, vitamin K, vitamin C, ipriflavone, silicon, and vitamins B6, B12, and folate are all required in the prevention of osteoporosis.

A link has been shown between high consumption of dairy products to ovarian and prostate cancer. But wait – it gets even more interesting: Studies indicate that osteoporosis (which affects 20 million American women), and ovarian cancer are most common in those countries with the highest consumption of dairy food and lowest in those countries with low dairy intake. Benign breast conditions, recurrent vaginitis, acne, menstrual cramps, fibroids, chronic intestinal upset and increased pain from endometriosis have also been associated with dairy consumption.

Although the US recommends 1000 -1200 mg of calcium per day, The World Health Organization only recommends 400 – 500 mg per day. Why? Because most countries do not ingest the amount of animal protein that we do. Vegetarians generally have a lower protein intake and are better able to absorb calcium, so their calcium needs are going to be much lower than someone who eats a diet heavy in protein.

The bottom line is that we can get an adequate amount of calcium and vitamin D from sources other than dairy. Besides green, leafy vegetables, calcium can also be found in nuts, beans and tofu. And getting your calcium from plant-based sources gives you more nutrients all the way around than you can get from dairy products. Fiber, anyone?

So, something to think about the next time you’re choking down a glass of milk just because it’s “good for you”. I will be happy to stop obsessing about getting in enough dairy but, until an adequate substitution is found, I cannot and will not give up cheese.

Cheese is just good food.


Anne said...

I'm a vegetarian and don't eat a lot of dairy and now I feel much better about it. ;)

Housewife Savant said...

I need more broccoli to balance my MEAT-eating Atkins ways, (but I have Ben & Jerry's in the freezer!)

I read somewhere that once we start leaching calcium from our bones we're at higher risk for kidney stones, because that leached stuff isn't as "useable."

Sounds like we're back at square one: moderation.

I stink at the moderation. I'm gonna go eat some New York Superfudge Chunk.

Oz Girl said...

I love cheese. I love milk. And I ain't giving up either. :-)

BetteJo said...

Cheese is God's food. Except for when it's pudding. Chocolate pudding.

Sheryl said...

Though I luv ice cream and cheese, it doesn't luv me. Won't go into the details.

My guess is no we don't need it, we can find what we need in other foods.

Momma Miller said...

Great post! I've been away on vacation and am just now catching up with all my favorite blogs. Glad to see the milk "calcium" controversy discussed here. Funny story--one time we were on WIC and when I told the director that we didn't need their milk or cheese coupons she was like, "Well, what are you going to do for calcium?" I said we'd get it through other non-dairy items. She did some digging and was shocked to find out just how many healthier things out there contained the right about of calcium and vitamin D.

Cheese, now there's a whole 'nother topic of research. I was stunned when we started wading through it. Giving up meat and milk, no biggie. Veggies and almond milk made that easy. But cheese has been the hardest thing to give up (and I didn't feel so bad once I discovered it's an opiate). I'll still indulge from time to time.

BTW, I can't stand soy cheese or any other packaged fake cheese. :shudder: However, I have a fabulous cashew melty cheese recipe that we LOVE if anyone is interested. Tastes a lot like velveeta cheese dip. A professional vegan chef slipped it to me last week and we've been in non-cheese Heaven ever since!

Fat[free]Me said...

Great post - so reassuring to read that we don't have to have milk - yippee!

Theresa said...

The only milk I like is chocolate:) Love cheese but it doesn't really like me! I take calcium but possibly need to up the vitamin D! Thanks for the research.

Tammy Howard said...

I love cheese but never liked milk. I take supplements.

Patty said...

Wow, thanks for all of the research. I started looking at the calcium requirements a while back and trying to figure out how to meet them. It is pretty frustrating to not even know how much we really do need. I had read that the requirement was inflated here in the states because of pressure from the dairy industry. But I know the only dairy I have been able to tolerate since I was a teenager is yogurt and cheese. No milk (except a glass of raw milk once--super good!)and I don't even like ice cream.

Kelly said...

That si very interesting. Have you read The China Study? It had some interesting things to say about dairy as well.
I do eat yogurt and cheese just because I like it but don't drink much milk at all. It's just not my thing. I'm a sucker for some gouda though. yummmmmm.

Heather said...

While tanning the other day (in a tanning bed) (& I know everyone feels differently about this) the radio program they have blasting through the speakers said that tanning helps give you the RDA of Vitamin D. ??? Which I know there are helpful side effects to the sun and tanning so tanning and taking my multi-vitamin are how I try to combat this issue. I know I've heard that dairy is supposed to help you keep a slimmer waist. I've come to the conclusion that no one really knows what's best for us. But this post gave me something to think about. Thanks. :)

Ree said...

Oh yea. I'm not giving up cheese. OR greek yogurt. You can keep the milk. UGH.


I probably don't get enough calcium, so I'm trying to do better...

VRaz60 said...

Not a huge fan of milk, anyway, so this is kinda good news. I do like to have some nice cheese once in a while.

I'm gonna stick with my new found wonder food "CHIA SEEDS". They just have it all. :)

jellybelly*jellybrain said...

I'm not giving up milk.
What else goes with my bowl of Cheerios at 3am in the morning?!

kristisummer said...

I am not giving up my Chobani ever lol