“Drink more milk, it makes your teeth and bones stronger”, is a mantra we hear all around us. The U.S. government recommends drinking three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk a day to meet our calcium and protein needs.
Bee, who was vegan for many years, was advised by her doctor after some tests, to “double your calcium intake.”
“Drink more milk”, the doctor droned.
So Bee started consuming low-fat milk and yogurt daily (only organic).
Then, in the March 2005 issue of the journal Pediatrics, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine came out with a statement criticising the U.S. government and the dairy industry for spreading misinformation about the relationship between dairy and calcium.
Of 37 studies reviewed, 27 were found to show no relationship between dairy or dietary calcium and bone health in children and young adults. The remaining studies found only a small association.
The researchers concluded that physical activity early in life appears to be a stronger predictor of bone health than dairy consumption.
The dairy industry, of course, begs to differ. They will point out that milk is, undoubtedly, a good and easy source of calcium. An 8-ounce glass (the fat content does not matter) contains about 300 milligrams of calcium.
So what exactly is the controversy about?
Why are some doctors and researchers opposed to publicising milk as the best calcium source?
We checked out a few online resources and this is what we learnt.
WHY DO WE NEED CALCIUM?
Calcium is important for maintaining healthy teeth and bones. It is required for the proper functioning of muscles and nerves, and for helping blood clot when we cut ourselves.
It depends on age. Older people need more because of the increased risk of osteoperosis, which literally means “porous bones“.
Age / Calcium (mg/day)
0 to 6 months: 210
7 to 12 months: 270
1 to 3 years: 500
4 to 8 years: 800
9 to 13 years: 1300
14 to 18 years: 1000
19 to 50 years: 1000
51+ years: 1200
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE CALCIUM LEVEL IN OUR BODY DROPS TOO LOW?
When calcium levels drop too low, the body taps into the calcium in our bones, making them brittle. The average person loses between 400 and 500 mg of calcium per day.
IS DAIRY A GOOD SOURCE OF CALCIUM?
It’s a decent source, but vegetarians and vegans have better options.
Dairy is high in calcium, but it’s also high in protein.
High-protein diets appear to lead to increased calcium losses. This study reports a very high prevalence of osteoperosis amidst Alaskan Eskimos, whose diet is very high in meat (protein). “Calcium intake is sufficiently high to preclude a deficiency,” the report says. It is believed that animal protein is acid-producing and leaches out some of the body’s calcium.
The body naturally removes some of its calcium through gut secretions, sweat and urine.
American, English and Swedish women have high rates of osteoperosis, though their dairy consumption levels are high.
DOES THAT MEAN WE NEED TO CONSUME LESS PROTEIN TO CUT DOWN CALCIUM LOSS?
No. Protein is essential for calcium absorption. It’s the type of protein consumed that makes all the difference. Plant protein has a positive or neutral impact on calcium absorption. Animal protein has a negative impact.
If protein intake is inadequate (less than 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight), the body will lack the building blocks for muscle and bone; and growth hormones, which stimulate muscle and bone building, will decline to undesirable levels. Consuming less than the recommended amount of protein in order to reduce calcium loss is therefore a false economy. Although protein excess is more common than protein deficiency in Western society, individuals with a low calorie intake, such as the very old, are particularly at risk of getting insufficient protein.
….. A person trying to increase protein intake using meat or fish, for example, will lose about 25 milligrams of calcium from their body for every 100 grams eaten. In contrast, a 100-gram portion of beans (by dry weight) has an approximately neutral effect on calcium balance while providing the same amount of protein. (Source)
See THIS POST for plant-based protein sources.
IT’S CONFUSING. SHOULD I CONSUME DAIRY OR NOT FOR MY CALCIUM SUPPLY?
Milk and yogurt are okay. Try to ensure that they are low-fat and organic.
8-ounce glass of milk = 300 milligrams
6 ounces of yogurt = 300 milligrams
A 2 ounce piece of Swiss cheese has 530 milligrams, but it is also loaded with fat and sodium. High sodium affects calcium absorption. Other sources like cream cheese don’t provide much calcium at all. One tablespoon of cream cheese provides only 12 milligrams of calcium.
Plus, fortified dairy products can be high in retinol (vitamin A), which at high levels can paradoxically weaken bones.
WHAT ARE THE VEGAN SOURCES OF CALCIUM?
Orange, bananas, red peppers, apricots, pears, prunes, broccoli, sweet potatoes, dried figs, beans, dark, green leafy vegetables, nuts like chestnuts and hazelnuts, and whole variety of seeds (especially sesame seeds).
HERE is a list of high-calcium vegan foods.
Good plant sources of calcium include tofu (if prepared using calcium sulphate contains more than four times the calcium of whole cow’s milk), green leafy vegetables, seeds and nuts. The calcium in green vegetables which are not high in oxalate e.g. kale, is absorbed as well or better than the calcium from cow’s milk. Some soya milks … are fortified with calcium. Drinking hard water can provide 200mg of calcium daily but soft water contains almost none. Other calcium rich foods include black molasses, edible seaweeds, watercress, parsley and dried figs. (Source)
When buying tofu, get the type that is prepared using calcium sulphate (gypsum), not nigari (magnesium chloride). Nigari supposedly makes the tofu softer, but the other variety is higher in calcium.
Calcium-rich: Watercress with Chickpeas
Chickpeas are an excellent source of calcium.
Grains like finger millet (ragi), amaranth (rajgira) and quinoa are very high in calcium.
Crush or grind seeds (like sunflower and sesame seeds) to increase calcium absorption.
WHAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH OXALATES?
Oxalates are natural substances that bind naturally to calcium and hinder their absorption. See the list of oxalate-rich foods HERE.
Dark leafy greens are excellent sources of calcium and Vitamin K, as well as plant-based Vitamin A sans retinol. Leafy greens in general have oxalates, but some have more than the others – like taro (colocasia) leaf, spinach, swiss chard, beet greens and collards. Some nuts are high in oxalates – like almonds, peanuts and cashews.
While these greens and nuts may not be absorbed as readily as foods not high in oxalates, they may not have a negative impact on calcium absorption as they themselves are rich in calcium. Plus greens like spinach and swiss chard are rich in Vitamin K, folates and in Vitamin A that is not retinol-based.
High in oxalates: taro / arvi / colocasia leaf
To get the maximum calcium bang for your buck, focus on greens low in oxalates like kale, romaine lettuce, turnip greens, and nuts like chestnuts, brazil nuts and hazelnuts.
Also note that the leaves of a plant almost always contain higher oxalate levels than the roots, stems, and stalks. Tea and chocolate are high in oxalates, so milk with tea or cocoa will deliver less calcium to your body than plain milk. Bummer.
What about raspberry icecream?
Berries are very high in oxalates, so raspberries reduce the calcium absorption of dairy. That’s seriously screwed up, ‘cos the idea of guzzling plain cow juice is just morbid. Well, berries are rich in antioxidants and other nutrients, so we’ll trade those for the calcium.
WHAT ELSE DO I NEED TO KNOW? **yawwn**
Exercise. It builds not only muscle, but bone strength and bone mass. (Recommended exercises for osteoperosis prevention)
The foundation of bone strength and bone mass is laid early in life. Children and adolescents need exercise, calcium and an adequate supply of the required vitamins and minerals to prevent early bone loss.
Cut down dairy to one or two servings a day, and make it low-fat.
Eat a lot of dark green leafy vegetables. They are high in calcium and also provide Vitamin K, which is vital to bone health.
Get plenty of Vitamin D through sunlight and supplements.
Look for a multivitamin that supplies 1,000 IU of vitamin D per day. If your multi only has 400 IU of vitamin D, consider taking an extra supplement to get you up to 1,000 IU or 2,000 IU per day. Some people may need 3,000 or 4,000 IU per day for adequate blood levels, particularly if they have darker skin, spend winters in the northern U.S., or have little exposure to direct sunlight. If you fall into these groups, ask your physician to order a blood test for vitamin D. (Source)
Cut sodium intake. Salt hinders calcium absorption.
Increase potassium intake. (Dietary sources of potassium)
Reduce caffeine, and do not consume it at mealtimes.
Watch where your Vitamin A comes from. Retinol-based Vitamin A from meat harms bones.
Get Vitamin A from beta-carotenes found in ‘orange’ produce (carrots, papaya, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, red and orange peppers) and dark leafy greens.
Retinol is often added to fortify foods with Vitamin A. Read the labels on Vitamin A-fortified multivitamins and foods like milk, soymilk, breakfast cereals and energy bars. Try to cut back on those with retinol or related products – anything beginning with ‘retin’ or ‘palmitate’ (which is retinyl palmitate) – in the ingredient list. Get multivitamins with caretones instead of retinol.
- The Jugalbandits