I hired a new doctor this winter and had a pre-visit questionnaire prior to my first appointment. Among other questions about my health, the nurse’s aid asked me, “Do you get a least three servings of milk or milk products every day.” To which I responded very confidently, “Yes.”
“That’s terrific!” she said.
I had just lied to a health professional.
In my defense, I think the question was posited to present the questioned with the correct answer. I knew I was supposed to have three servings of dairy a day. Truthfully, I take cream in my coffee and occasionally eat yogurt and cheese. This does not add up to three servings, my friends. I began my appointment, totally expecting to be called out for my fib and forced to confess that I do not consume “enough” dairy and hear that my bone health is at risk. Luckily, I got away with it.
We are raised to believe that consuming dairy is absolutely essential in a healthy diet. It turns out that the need for dairy in an adult’s diet is actually quite controversial – like most things related to nutrition science and nutrition policy. The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for calcium was set by government agencies to ensure that children have enough to grow strong bones and that adults have enough to maintain them. From this viewpoint (with the support of the Dairy Council and their powerful lobby), these agencies insist that Americans consume dairy and a lot of it – 3 cups per day. We’re told that dairy is single-handedly the best source of calcium and we need a lot of it to keep our bones healthy and strong.
Critics of dairy remind us that we are the only animal on the planet that consumed milk into adulthood. Not to mention, the only animal that regularly consumes breast milk produced by other species. Let's put controversies aside, after all, this concern over calcium is based in rational science. The fact is, bone health is incredibly important and calcium is a major component of this tissue.
But is this the whole picture or is calcium just a player in a much more complicated game?
As it turns out, osteoporosis is the biggest issue in cultures that regularly consume dairy: Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the USA. Populations that not only don’t regularly consume dairy products but are also lactose intolerant, like Native Americans and many Asian nations, also have the lowest incidence of osteoporosis. Or had. As the Western diet takes the world by storm and dairy consumption rises in countries like Hong Kong, China and the Asia Pacific, so too does the incidence of osteoporosis.
Huh....So dairy may not be the answer.
What was prevalent in the diets of these cultures before us well-intentioned white people got involved? Bone broths, marrow and organ meats; nutrient-packed foods high in calcium, its true, but also in vitamin D, minerals (magnesium, zinc, iron and others) and other nutrients (like FAT – gasp!) all contributing to bone health.
What else was happening in their cultures before they got modernized? Oh, right, they had a lot of physical activity in their daily lives. Infrastructure and technology may be the ruin of modern man’s physical fitness.
It turns out that calcium is not the only nutrient at play and diet is not the only contributing factor to bone health. Mike Sampson, a Strength and Conditioning Coach at TwinTown CrossFit has this to say on the matter, “Bone is living tissue that responds to changes in its environment. If you put stress on your bones they will respond by growing stronger. Lifting heavy weights is the most effective, but almost any form of exercise will help. Don’t belong to a gym? Put a bag of dog food on your shoulder and walk around the block.”
I’d like to see that!
This just goes to show there’s more to bone health than simply drinking 3 cups of milk every day. With the rise in lactose intolerance, dairy allergies, leaky gut syndrome and celiac disease, we need a broader focus on what it takes to maintain bone health.
Here are a few ideas to start:
- Eat a varied diet including an abundance of leafy greens, nuts and seeds. These are great sources of calcium, iron, zinc and magnesium, as well as other magical gems that will generally improve your health.
- Try organ meats, like liver. Liver is an awesome source of iron, B vitamins and vitamin D. We are the only animal that doesn’t store vitamin D – call it a systemic flaw. Other animals store D in their organs, which is why cod liver oil is often suggested as a good source for supplementing. Eating the whole food is an even better option!
- Take Mike’s advice and incorporate weight-bearing exercise into your fitness routine. Challenge yourself and do something out of your comfort zone like weight lifting or kettle bells.
- Eat dairy? You decide. If it works for you, awesome. If it doesn’t, don’t despair. You’ve got options.
Jesse Haas is Co-Founder of Chakra Khan, where she is a Massage Therapist and Health Coach. Her approach to working with clients integrates whole body health and conscious eating. To learn more about her practice or to schedule a free consultation, visit www.jessehaas.com or email her at email@example.com. Her last article for SGT was: Multivitamin...Do I Need You?