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.