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Daily Calcium Needs and the Great Dairy Debate

Posted May 23 2012 1:20pm

The great dairy debate is a tough topic to address because people are very passionate about their particular side.  It’s complicated by the fact that nutrition science happens to be one of the only areas of science where people can prove both sides of the debate.  So we’ve been left to choose sides based on individual preference and experience and we’re able to support our stance with scientific evidence leaving us with no clear picture or guidance on the healthiest choice.

Recently, concrete studies have come out on the issue that help give a less debatable answer to the questions – how much dairy do we really need? – which directly relates to the question, how much calcium do we really need? I’ll try to keep it simple by bulleting out some of the most significant findings from research recently presented by Walter Willett, MD, DrPH , Chairman of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.  I’ve had the privilege of studying this research as part of my health coaching curriculum at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition™.

Facts About Dairy:

  • Most of the world is lactose intolerant.
  • Touted as a solution to our calcium needs. (see below about calcium studies)
  • Contains hormones designed to trigger rapid growth. (useful for babies)
  • Cows are often milked when pregnant when higher levels of hormones are present.
  • Hormones and high amounts of milk intake seem to contribute to higher risks of some types of cancers including prostate, ovarian and endometrial cancer.
  • Dairy consumption is not essential to a healthy diet.  People all over the world live dairy free because they do not have access to it and have healthy bones and no increased risk of fracture.
  • No evidence in recent studies that milk consumption prevents osteoporosis or fractures.

Facts About Calcium:

  • Calcium needs have been overstated.  Exact amount is up for debate and may vary by individual but it ranges between 500 mg a day to 1200 mg a day for someone over 50 years of age.
  • UK studies claim daily calcium needs are 700 mg a day.
  • World Health Organization claims daily calcium needs are 500 mg a day.
  • The average healthy diet provides about 300 mg of calcium a day.
  • A glass of milk provides 400 mg of calcium a day.
  • We can get a descent amount of daily calcium from a healthy diet and one glass of milk. (People are being told they need at least 3 servings of dairy a day.)
  • Recent reports indicate that high calcium supplements in our diets (1200 – 1500 mg a day) have been linked to higher risk of heart attack and kidney stones and possibly a higher risk of hip fracture.
  • Calcium fortified foods are everywhere.  It’s in bottled water, orange juice, bagels, bread and cereal in addition to our dairy intake and calcium supplements.  It’s very easy to significantly overload on calcium.

Here’s where I come out on all of this.  Consuming dairy is not essential or necessary for a healthy diet.  For some of us, the risks may outweigh the benefits.  For those of us who can tolerate dairy, consuming it in small quantities is acceptable and maybe even somewhat beneficial.  The higher quality the dairy the better.  If you do choose to make dairy a part of your diet, organic is always better.  I personally enjoy some dairy, mainly in the form of raw, organic cheese.  My kids are big fans of yogurt.  So while we haven’t eliminated dairy from our diets completely, we only consume it in small amounts - mainly because we enjoy the food and not because we believe it to be an essential component to a healthy diet.

Where do you stand on the great dairy debate?  Do the facts from Dr. Willett’s research change your opinions or leave you with any questions about the role dairy should play in your diet?

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