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Bones, Calcium, Controversy

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.

 

 

Resources:

Osteoporosis Fact Sheet by the International Osteoporosis Foundation 

 

 

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 jesse@jessehaas.com. Her last article for SGT was: Multivitamin...Do I Need You?

 


 

Comments

I was diagnosed with full-blown osteoporosis at 24! I decided to forgo medication that was not yet tested on pre-menopausal women and instead try weight lifting and changing my diet to include lots of non-dairy calcium-rich foods. In just a few years I've increased my bone density by leaps and bounds, all without much dairy. I agree with this article - there are other ways to have healthy bones without the typical 3 servings of dairy per day!

As you pointed out, Jesse, the cultures that historically consume little to no dairy products in adulthood have tended to avoid many of the illnesses that our society now faces such as osteoporosis, high cholesterol, heart disease, and cancer. Is it really any wonder? Our bodies were not designed to process those foreign animal proteins, and three servings a day is an overload for our system. Sure, we've been eating cheese and drinking milk for hundreds if not a few thousand years, but evolutionarily that is simply not enough time for our bodies to adapt.

Even more eye-opening to me is that there is current research looking into trial results that may show that taking supplements, drugs, or steroids to combat osteoporosis and other adult onset illnesses are having dramatically negative results. These findings suggest that something as seemingly benign as calcium or vitamin D supplements are actually negatively impacting (and shortening) our final years of life. Personally I think it's a frightening prospect, and I have to just trust my gut that eating a well-balanced, fresh foods diet is the best source of nutrients for my body. Obviously exercise is important in maintaining our health as well.

Thank you for bringing up this topic. As a parent of young kids I see a lot of pressure from doctors, parents, and peers to push large amounts of dairy on our children, and like you I'm not convinced.

Bone fractures and osteoporosis are more common in women who did not breastfeed. Could the higher instance of osteoporosis in developing countries be in part due to decreasing breastfeeding rates in these countries? Trying to prevent osteoporosis by pumping our body full of dairy does seem like an oversimplified (and ineffective) solution. Thanks for the article!

Emily- excellent thought to ponder.

Lots of good thoughts here; thank you for posting!

I'm so glad you shared your story, Abby! I'm so curious about what your life was like before your diagnosis! There are just so many things that contribute to health factors, so for us to learn from each other the background is just as important as the results. So glad that you were able to improve you're health - nice work!

In regards to the issue of dairy or animal products being foreign to our digestive tracts, I disagree. Animal products have been an important part of our evolutionary history. That's what makes us omnivores and it contributed a lot to our ability to survive and evolve. That being said, our ancestors did not consume nearly as much meat as we do now and dairy was only part of certain cultures. For example, the Maasai people in Kenya have subsisted on milk, meat and blood for hundreds of years. People living in areas of Switzerland evolved on diets based in milk and rye. Dairy became a part of human life when we settled into agrarian lifestyles, which was also the time when we began to really thrive and multiply as a species. But agricultural cultivation was different depending on climate, so certain nationalities never had dairy. There is a whole dietary theory based on ancestry which believes that if we ate what our ancestor ate, we'd have optimal health. (That doesn't really work for the Midwest mutt like me who has ancestors from 10 countries...) So to say that animal products, including milk, are bad for us is not true but it doesn't work for everyone. And, contrary to what we've been told I don't think dairy is necessary to maintain health.

Important information! This is contrary to what most of us have been told our whole lives about good nutrition. Thanks for raising questions about the dairy myth and encouraging consumption of the green leafy vegetables.

All information is useful. I admire by this blog. Thanks for sharing information about bone health.

 I have heard that many mothers have problem like the bone marrow. The chance is due to the lack of the vitamin they getting from their food. The easy way to prevent this is by making your diet as said above by the site.

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