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Are Dairy Products the Best Source of Calcium?

     Drinking milk and eating dairy products is regarded by many people as the best way to build strong, healthy bones.  For years, dairy products were widely touted as one of the four “essential” food groups and who can forget the “got milk?” advertising campaign?  The United States is one of the highest dairy- consuming populations in the world. In addition, Americans take in the highest number of calcium supplements and calcium-enriched foods. Interestingly enough, however, Americans also happen to have one of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world.

     Studies show that people in countries that have never seen cow’s milk do not develop osteoporosis nearly as much as those in countries where dairy products are commonly consumed. In fact, the incidences of hip fractures in countries with low consumptions of dairy products are 50 times less than hip fractures in the United States. A study of 77,761 women over a 12-year period, showed that fracture rates were higher for those who consumed three or more glasses of milk than for those who had little or none.

The Problem with Cow’s Milk

      Of course, cow’s milk is nature’s perfect food – if you happen to be a calf!  But even cows don’t drink milk after weaning and they still keep high calcium levels from eating grass. Other species of animals also develop large strong bones without drinking milk after they are weaned. People would be wise to follow suit. Dark, leafy greens provide a far better choice in supplying the body with calcium. In fact, a hundred calories of turnip greens has more than three times the amount of calcium as 100 calories of whole milk.

     One problem with people obtaining calcium from milk is that the calcium in dairy is bound to casein. Casein is a protein in milk that must be separated from calcium by special enzymes not possessed by humans (protein molecules in goat’s milk, however, are half the size of cow’s milk so it digests and absorbs far more easily and quickly).  Cow’s milk is also too high in phosphorus and does not contain sufficient amounts of magnesium for the proper calcium/magnesium ratio.

     Though it may possess many valuable nutrients in its raw form, the biggest problem with milk today is all the artificial processes it goes through, namely pasteurization and homogenization. The pasteurization process binds the calcium to phosphorus to form calcium phosphate--a substance very difficult to assimilate and one that destroys nutrients that aid calcium absorption.  Excessive amounts of dairy products actually interfere with calcium absorption and overshadow any potential benefit from the calcium it contains.

     Moreover, counting on milk to supply calcium is problematic because many people cannot digest it well.  Approximately 70 percent of the population is lactose intolerant, meaning they have difficulty breaking down lactose-- the sugar in milk.  Many others have an allergic reaction to casein, the protein in cow’s milk (it should be noted that goat’s milk does not contain the same protein complexes that stimulate allergic reactions and is far less allergy producing).  As I discuss in my article “Better Bone Health – Solutions to Osteoporosis - Part 2,” any food that is not digested well can eventually end up creating inflammation in the body.  Inflammation is one of the primary root causes of osteoporosis.  Plus it is unlikely that nutrients from a food are well absorbed if the food is not properly digested.

     Lastly, the fact that dairy products are generally acid-forming foods means that they tend to promote an imbalanced pH, which leads to a further loss of calcium from the bones.  In other words, it can actually take more calcium to buffer the acid content in milk and dairy products than any amount of calcium the body could assimilate from the food. While dairy products do contain a fair amount of calcium, they in no way guarantee better bone health.  Consuming dairy products not only fails to reduce the risk of osteoporosis but many studies conclude that it actually increases the risk.

Concluding Thoughts

     As deeply as it is ingrained in our thoughts and culture, milk is not a healthy perfect food nor is drinking it an optimal way to improve your bone health.  Recommendations that indicate otherwise are not based on key scientific findings about health.  For more information on this subject, I would recommend that you read my article “Got Milk – Should You Drink It?”  If you would like to understand more about dairy allergies or lactose intolerance, please read my article “Food Allergies – Could Dairy Be Your Problem?”

Copyright © 2008-2015 Lucinda Bedogne, CNHP, CNC

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