For as long as we can remember we’ve been brainwashed to believe that milk is essential to strong bones. Kids must have a glass of milk with dinner to grow strong bones and women should eat plenty of yogurt to prevent osteoporosis (often the fruit on the bottom variety with loads of sugar of course….I’ll get back to that in a moment). It’s time to re-think this approach.
Calcium is certainly important to bone health. It is also important for muscle contractions, nerve function, hormone production and blood clotting. Just as a soccer team has 11 players on the field to help each other score a goal – calcium needs other minerals on its team to help it function properly. Some of its team mates are vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium and phosphorous to name a few. Without them we can experience calcium imbalances, deficiencies and excess – it’s all about balance baby!
During my cleanse program we remove dairy for 14 days and it is something I sometimes suggest to my 1:1 clients as well for various health reasons. The first question that comes up is “where am I going to get my calcium???”
Instead, ask yourself this…..where do large animals like deer, cows and elephants get their calcium?
That’s right! From eating the foods they are naturally meant to eat like leaves, grass and other vegetable sources. They aren’t drinking the milk from another animal like humans do. We are the only mammal that does this.
As babies we produce an enzyme called lactase in order to process lactose (the milk protein) in breast milk. As we get older lactase production decreases because we can start eating real food and no longer need breast milk to provide all of our vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. When you experience gas, bloating, diarrhea and other icky tummy troubles after eating dairy, chances are you are low in lactase. To get your calcium in a natural form that is easy to assimilate, focus on some of these non-dairy sources.
- Beans and nuts
- Greens, especially broccoli, collards, kale, mustard, turnip tops, parsley, watercress and dandelion
- Sea vegetables
- Sesame seeds and tahini
- Canned salmon and sardines with bones (I recommend Wild Planet brand)
- Soup stock made with bones (fish, chicken or beef) and one tablespoon of vinegar (this helps draw the calcium and makes it available in the broth)
Here’s an interesting little factoid….3 1/2 ounces of kale (boiled and drained) contains calcium 187 milligrams of calcium compared to 118 milligrams than the same amount of milk.
3/12 ounces of sesame seeds contain 1,160 milligrams of calcium. Wowza! Not only do these foods have loads of calcium but that also have calciums teammates – magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin K and phosphorous all in one nice little package. It’s like a huge buy one, get one sale!
Let’s talk about osteoporosis for a second, since that is the HOT topic that arises when we talk about milk and calcium. AnneMarie Colbin, author of Food and Healing says this:
Instead of seeing osteoporosis as a condition of lack, let’s consider it as a condition of drain. In other words, the question will be not “What is the way to add more calcium to the system?” but rather, “What is draining or keeping calcium away?”
Remember the fruit on the bottom yogurt I mentioned in the beginning? If you have one of those in your fridge get it out right now and look that sugar content. I’m going to guess it has anywhere from 25-30 grams of sugar and one of the ingredients is cane sugar or something similar (plain yogurt usually contains somewhere around 12 grams – this is the lactose, i.e. milk sugar). Sugar increases the rate at which calcium is excreted from your bones. So, while you’re eating your strawberry yogurt in the morning in the hopes of giving our bones some calcium, the sugar is cruising on in there and sucking the calcium from your bones before the calcium can get in there. Pretty counterproductive, don’t you think?
Some other foods that can compromise calcium are nightshade vegetables (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers), wine, coffee, vinegar and citrus. This is not to say you should take all of these foods out of your diet – but perhaps you should address that coffee addiction or wine with dinner habit?
Still doing dairy? Here’s what to do.
So we can all agree that there are loads of other places to get calcium, like nuts, seeds and leafy greens (I see a kale salad in your future!) and you need to ditch that fruity yogurt. But, what if you still want to eat dairy? Great question!
First, if you are having any GI troubles, skin irritations (acne, rashes etc) or have icky plegm in your throat (clearing your throat or blowing your nose) then I highly recommend taking all dairy out. Try it for a week and see what happens.
If dairy is still on your grocery list, follow these four steps:
- Organic: Toxins like to hang out in fat tissue. When cows eat grasses that have been sprayed with herbicides and pesticides, those toxins gather in their body fat and the fat in the dairy they produce. We end up eating those toxins when we eat a steak or drink a glass of milk. Ick!
- No Hormones: This often falls under the organic label but read carefully and research the company you’re buying from. Cows now produce nearly twice as much milk than they did 50 years ago. How is this possible? They are being loaded up on growth hormones (rBST) which we end up consuming. This has been linked to early puberty in girls and increase prostate cancer in men. Double ick!
- Fermented: Fermented dairy is more easily digestible. Look for plain yogurts without the added sugar and sweeten them with honey, maple syrup and fresh berries. Kefir is also a fermented dairy beverage available at some farmers markets and natural food stores.
- Raw: If you have access to raw dairy products that can be an excellent choice. Raw, unpasteurized dairy still has many important vitamins and minerals that are depleted during the pasteurization process, such as vitamin D, vitamin B12 and vitamin C. Be sure you are getting raw milk from a clean source you trust.
The Environmental Working Group has a nice guide on eating and choosing dairy. Check it out HERE.
Food and Healing by AnneMarie Colbin
The Whole Foods Guide to Strong Bones, AnneMarie Colbin
Culinary Nutrition Expert Program, Meghan Telpner