Dairy Versus Plant Based Calcium

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To Drink or Not To Drink….

…that is my question. Before I attended the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN), I believed whole heartedly in the power of dairy, and more specifically, milk. However, in just four short months I have been introduced to a side of a world that I never questioned. I would like to examine, in this paper, the road I have traveled while debating the very issue of whether or not dairy is good, necessary or even needed in today’s American Society.

Milk and Calcium - The first comment to make me wonder about the effectiveness of dairy was made by Doctor John Douillard, international teacher of Ayurveda. He stated that we were one of the few societies past birth, to drink milk.[1] I found this interesting and was curious to understand more. As such, I began my research regarding dairy (milk and its by-products), calcium and the need for each in today’s American culture.

There is no question in my mind that calcium plays a vital role in the durability and maintenance of our bones. This is also supported by medical research. “Calcium is a principal constituent of bones. …The constant movement of calcium in and out of bones is called ‘turnover’. You need enough calcium in your body to balance the amount that is lost through normal calcium turnover.”[2] Thus, you need an ample amount of calcium throughout life to maintain strong and healthy bones. However, the research supporting dairy calcium has become quite controversial and remains open for debate.

It has long been known that the Japanese and South African cultures, while not consuming a diet that includes much dairy, have some of the lowest rates of osteoporosis and bone fracture rates in the world. On the contrary, the two countries with the largest consumption of dairy in their diet, the United States and Holland, also have the highest number of cases of osteoporosis and bone fractures. [3] Why is this? Does it have to do with the fact that calcium sources derived from dairy are not necessary to maintain strong and healthy bones or is it a result of the type and quality of dairy calcium rich foods we are consuming in the U.S.? I have attempted to research both issues.

One of the most common dairy products consumed in American culture is milk. Milk is produced by mammals, including humans, to feed their young. It is a complex liquid that provides many minerals and nutrients for growing babies. Milk and other dairy products also contain lactose, a sugar that is not easily digested by many people over the age of five, cholesterol and saturated fat. So why then, does the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) including milk as a food group on their food pyramid?

I believe this is a result of big business. The dairy industry sells $21 billion worth of milk annually.[4] Monetarily and commercially, it is not in their best interest to weigh the pros versus the cons of this highly controversial topic. If we were to stop advertising dairy as a substantial source of calcium that aided in preventing osteoporosis, perhaps many people would not buy milk and dairy products that boost the “seal of approval” to meet this end. While a mother’s milk has tremendous nutritional benefits for young offspring, the advantage for people after infancy has some researchers wondering. I personally believe that dairy past childhood is not necessary.

Dairy Versus Plant Based Calcium - As mentioned earlier, dairy has three main downsides when it comes to nutritional value: lactose, cholesterol and saturated fat. Not everyone is lactose intolerant, but many individuals after the age of five do have a problem digesting the sugar. The lack of the enzyme needed to digest lactose can cause stomach and intestinal issues. Additionally, dairy contains cholesterol and saturated fat, except for the non-fat varieties. While dairy also contains calcium, the verdict is still out on whether or not a diet high in dairy calcium prevents osteoporosis and other diseases. If that is the case, then why do the Japanese and South African cultures not experience a higher amount these problems?

The answer lies in the fact that these cultures eat foods that are primarily plant based. Examples of plant based foods that have a high calcium content include, seaweed, leafy greens, beans, tofu and almonds. Again, I am not arguing the benefit of calcium in maintaining healthy bones, but rather the source from which the calcium is derived. My belief is that there are a variety of healthier sources of calcium readily available than through dairy products. However, if one does decide to obtain their calcium intake from dairy, the most healthy and organic versions of dairy should be utilized.

Quality Dairy - Aside from supplements, many Americans obtain their calcium requirements from dairy foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt and ice cream. The most popular type of “table” milk in the US is cow’s milk. For most of us, unless you live on a farm, we obtain our milk from the supermarket or dairy and not in our backyards from cows we raise. As a result, we leave a lot of decisions up to others on how the cows that feed us are raised and milked. That means that many of us are eating dairy foods that have been subjected to unnatural processes and hormones that alter the true state of dairy.

For instance, many dairy bearing animals in the U.S. are raised in areas where the living conditions are less than ideal: crammed livestock pens, no outside pasture time and they are being treated with genetically engineered growth hormones and antibiotics that aid in increased milk production (recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) being the most commonly used hormone for this cause). On the basis of this information alone we can see that the milk that is taken from these cows is altered far from its original state. Place on top of that the processes of pasteurization, the use of high heat to kill microbial contaminants, and homogenization, a mechanical mixing process that makes milk the same consistency throughout, and the milk that ends up on supermarket shelves is a mere image of its self. If you do choose to eat dairy in order to get your calcium needs, be sure that it is of a good quality: 100% USDA Organic. This means that the animals used to produce the food were able to graze in open pastures, were fed grass, and were not subjected to extra hormones.

Summary - To conclude, my experience at IIN has led me to question my thoughts on the role of dairy in my diet and in the diet of American culture. While I do believe that calcium is inherent to retain strong and healthy bones, I also believe that there are a variety of different diets to promote calcium intake. As we have seen in other cultures, plant based diets can provide an ample amount of calcium in one’s diet. Additionally, supplements may be taken to reach this need. I should add a final note that while I don’t feel dairy is a necessary food group, if you enjoy eating it and are not affected by lactose intolerance or issues of high cholesterol, enjoy dairy in moderation and be sure to eat the highest quality you can get. This means foods that are low in saturated fat and are 100% USDA organic.

[1] John Douillard. (2007, December). The 3 Season Diet and Ayurevdics. Institute for Integrative Nutrition, New York, NY.

[2] Marion Nestle. What To Eat. (New York: North Point Press, 2006) 72-73.

[3] Joshua Rosenthal. Integrative Nutrition – The Future of Nutrition. (Place of publication not listed: Integrative Nutrition Publishing, Inc., 2006) 129.

[4] Marion Nestle. What To Eat. (New York: North Point Press, 2006) 70.