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Calcium – the great milk myth

Calcium – the great milk myth

Calcium is one of the most important minerals in the body and is involved in much more than just bone formation.  Calcium is required for our nerves to pass signals, for our blood to clot, our heart to pump, and our muscles to contract.  Every cell in the body requires calcium, which is why the amount of calcium in the blood is tightly controlled.  When levels begin to drop the body pulls calcium from the bones, which is our largest source of calcium storage.  This process is called bone resorption, and can lead to weak, brittle bones (osteoporosis) as we age.  We need to get large amounts of calcium from our food every day to prevent osteoporosis.

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium varies by age:

Age

Male

Female

Pregnant

Lactating

0–6 months*

200 mg

200 mg

7–12 months*

260 mg

260 mg

1–3 years

700 mg

700 mg

4–8 years

1,000 mg

1,000 mg

9–13 years

1,300 mg

1,300 mg

14–18 years

1,300 mg

1,300 mg

1,300 mg

1,300 mg

19–50 years

1,000 mg

1,000 mg

1,000 mg

1,000 mg

51–70 years

1,000 mg

1,200 mg

71+ years

1,200 mg

1,200 mg

 

How can I get enough calcium? Can’t I just drink milk?
Cow’s milk isn’t the only source of calcium.  In fact, cow’s milk has many potential problems.  Many people lack the enzyme to digest lactose, the sugar naturally occurring in milk.  This is condition is called “lactose intolerance,” and can lead to bloating, abdominal discomfort, and flatulence.  Though all healthy babies have the enzyme (lactase) to digest the lactose in human milk, the amounts of lactase tend to gradually decrease after infancy (beginning at around 2 years of age).  It is estimated that 90% of Asians and Africans are lactose intolerant, 70% of Hispanics and Jewish persons, 65% of Southern Indians, 30% of Central Europeans, and 5% of Northern Europeans.  Persons who are not lactose intolerant may still have allergies or food sensitivities to the proteins casein or whey in dairy products.

There are other concerning issues with milk consumption as well.  Cow’s milk has been linked to autoimmune conditions, including type I diabetes.  It can also cause iron deficiency, atherosclerosis, and may exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome, autism, asthma and allergies.  Milk also contains saturated (“unhealthy”) fats that can lead to heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Though it is often touted as a good food for the bones, cow’s milk is also high in phosphorus, which actually contributes to osteoporosis.

What are other sources of calcium?
There are many other great ways to get calcium without the negative effects of cow’s milk.  Some ideas: substitute blackstrap molasses for sugar in recipes to increase both calcium and iron.  Skip the tuna fish and used canned salmon or sardines (with bones) on crackers or toast for a delicious snack.  Buy calcium-fortified orange juice instead of regular – the naturally occurring vitamin C will increase absorption of calcium.  Avoid taking calcium with iron or other minerals because they compete for absorption in the gut.

Remember that calcium isn’t the only player in the osteoporosis prevention game.  Vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium, vitamin C and protein are all important to decrease the risk of osteoporosis and fractures.  Vitamin D increases your body’s ability to absorb and use calcium appropriately – I always recommend all my patients to have their vitamin D levels checked so we can optimize their health.

Here is a helpful list of other sources of calcium:
Blackstrap molasses, 2 tbsp 400 mg
Sardines, 3 ounces 324 mg
Collard greens, 1 cup 357 mg
Calcium-fortified orange juice, 1 cup 300 mg
Soy or rice milk, fortified, 1 cup 200-300 mg
Firm tofu, 1/2 cup 253 mg
Canned salmon, 3 ounces 205 mg
Turnip greens, 1 cup 215 mg
Kale, 1 cup 179 mg
Soybeans, 1 cup 175 mg
Okra, 1 cup 172 mg
Bok choy, 1 cup 158 mg
Mustard greens, 1 cup 152 mg
Tahini, 2 tbsp 128 mg
Broccoli, 1 cup 94 mg
Almonds, 1/4 cup 89 mg
Almond butter, 2 tbsp 86 mg

Avatar
Erika Krumbeck

Erika Krumbeck, ND is founder of NaturopathicPediatrics.com and the owner of Montana Whole Health, a naturopathic clinic in Missoula, Montana. She received her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University and is a licensed physician in the state of Montana. Dr. Krumbeck is one of few physicians specializing in the treatment of chronic health conditions in children. 

Dr. Krumbeck likes to practice her own healthy lifestyle with her wonderful husband Jason, a physical therapist, and their children Annika and Leopold. 

She is a professional member of the Pediatric Association of Naturopathic Physicians.

Comments:

  • Avatar
    Hazel
    July 25, 2015 at 12:27 pm

    What should toddlers drink almond milk rice milk or cows milk?

  • Avatar
    Melissa
    May 14, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    Erika, I’ve been enjoying reading around on your blog! I love the topics you tackle–and you’re a good writer!

    This one I’m wrestling with a bit though. I’ve been somewhat frustrated with how much cow’s milk is vilified these days. Everywhere I go people tell me everything from “it’s not necessary” to “it’s dangerous”.

    And–I totally believed it–until about a year ago. I didn’t drink cow’s milk for years–only drinking goat milk through my pregnancy and supplementing for extra calcium. But, after my daughter’s first two teeth came through, and were chipped within weeks, I found out that I was calcium deficient during my pregnancy and that caused her to have really weak enamel. Honestly, I felt really betrayed! I thought I was doing her a service by avoiding cow dairy.

    Now, it’s plausible that I could have worked harder at making sure I was getting enough calcium through non-dairy food sources, and the supplement I chose might have just been a bad one. However, sometimes I look at these lists of non-dairy calcium sources and wonder “Who possibly eats enough of this stuff every day to get 1,000+ mg of calcium?” Maybe because I don’t do soy (how about a post on how bad soy is?) or juice or many sweet things (which nixes molasses from every day at least)–so that crosses out most of the highest numbers on your list.

    I just think that–if you aren’t actually allergic to it–dairy is by far the easiest way to get calcium in a diet. Especially for little kids. What 2 year-old is going to eat a cup of collard greens every day? 🙂 Cheese, however? That one’s easy.

    So, what if instead of telling people that they don’t need dairy–or that it will actually hurt them–we gave people choices for how to choose better dairy forms. Like, kefir, yogurt and cheese for those with lactose intolerance (or raw milk, if it doesn’t scare you and isn’t illegal where you live), and organic milk from cows fed grass and not treated with hormones and antibiotics for others.

    It seems like most of the problems with cow’s milk are rooted in the fact that in our industrialized food system cow’s are fed gmo corn (not allowed to graze on greens), pumped with hormones, they’re often sick and so pumped with antibiotics, and then produce milk devoid of vitamins and full of bacteria that then needs to be pasteurized to make it safe for consumption. Then we buy skim milk, thinking it’s better for us, but–if there were vitamins left in the milk–they would mostly be in the fat (vit. A and D).
    (http://www.westonaprice.org/making-it-practical/milk-it-does-a-body-good)

    Plenty of traditional european cultures have thrived on dairy for centuries. So, it can’t be all bad for us, right? How does the Naturopathic community view the Weston A. Price Foundation’s thoughts on milk?

    Or, what are your thoughts on treating allergies (including allergies or intolerances to milk) through diet (like the GAPS diet), so that people who have trouble with dairy can eat it again?

    Keep up the good blog posts!

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