Whether it’s a pyramid or a divided plate chart, we have all seen the infographics designed to describe which foods and how much we should be eating for good health. Most, if not all of these charts include a significant portion of dairy-based foods. The rationale tends to be that dairy products are a good source of calcium and protein. But are they the only food source of calcium or protein? NO!
So why have they, historically, had their own section of the healthy food chart? Maybe it’s time for a change…
Why is calcium important?
We hear it all the time: calcium is required for strong bones. We need calcium to fend off low bone density and osteoporosis. But calcium does so much more in our bodies.
Cells use calcium as a gatekeeper for when to let other molecules in and out. Without calcium, muscles wouldn’t move (including your heart), nerves wouldn’t send signals to the brain, hormones and enzymes wouldn’t be released when needed, and blood vessels wouldn’t be able to move blood throughout the body . Calcium is central to our ability to live and function normally.
In fact, the reason osteoporosis develops is that calcium is so important for all of those “other functions” that your body will take minerals away from the bones to meet its other needs first. Bones are your body’s last priority for calcium use and act as a storage solution for extra calcium.
Therefore, if maintaining strong bones into old age is your goal, you must regularly consume more than enough calcium to meet your body’s metabolic and signaling needs. Bone health can still be a challenge due to a delicate balance of hormones and bone metabolism, but consuming adequate calcium daily is definitely central to meeting that goal.
It is possible to have too much calcium. But, it is unlikely to reach the upper limits of the healthy range if you are getting calcium from food sources and/or taking dietary supplements as recommended .
Another important fact to know about calcium is that it is not equally absorbable from all foods and in all forms. Dairy products do happen to provide an absorbable form of calcium naturally, but supplements can be designed for maximum absorption too.
Part of the calcium absorption problem is the presence of vitamin D. Vitamin D is required for normal absorption of calcium in the gut and it also helps to maintain healthy circulating levels of calcium. Unfortunately, many Americans are vitamin D deficient because we tend to live lifestyles that prevent extended daily sun exposure. This is why we often see dairy products fortified with vitamin D (vitamin D added).
What’s wrong with dairy products?
Some people have no problems with dairy products.
However, dairy products are on the list of the eight most common allergens. For those with dairy allergies, consumption can cause a variety of immune reactions from hives to life-threatening anaphylaxis. An allergy is different from an intolerance.
More than 60% of the global human population is lactose intolerant to one degree or another . Those who are dairy or lactose intolerant are not allergic. They just do not produce the proper enzymes to digest dairy products effectively. An intolerance can be due to a genetic difference or developed over time. For those who are intolerant, consumption can cause painful gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea, and even lead to dysbiosis in the gut and suboptimal nutrient absorption.
Some individuals choose not to consume dairy products for other reasons. A recent survey conducted by Cornell University showed that over 90% of respondents believe that antibiotic use on dairy farms poses a threat to human health .
Although no evidence has yet been reported showing growth hormone use on dairy animals has any adverse effects on human consumers, some people are also put off by the idea of this treatment . A majority of consumers in the Cornell survey reported that they are willing to pay more for organic dairy products due to these feelings .
Others have ethical issues with the treatment of dairy animals, the environmental impact of the dairy industry, or the economical sustainability of the dairy industry, and prefer not to purchase, support, or eat these products .
Taking all of this into account, the big problem with dairy products is that many, many people cannot or will not consume them. So why are these the foods that are being recommended to meet everyone’s calcium needs? There are plenty of other options to meet and exceed your calcium requirements; no dairy required.
Unfortunately, those who do not consume dairy products do tend to have lower calcium intakes . This is likely due, at least in part, to the lack of universal education provided on the importance of dietary calcium and where to find it if you don’t eat dairy.
What are some non dairy calcium-rich foods?
Canned seafood (more bones the better). Compared to 1 cup whole milk (the gold standard for calcium-rich foods), one small can of sardines packed in oil delivers more calcium . One 3 oz serving of pink salmon contains almost as much calcium as a glass of nonfat milk (a little less than whole) . These fish can provide 35% and 21% of your daily calcium intake, respectively. They are also great sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Some people worry about mercury poisoning from eating too much fish. However, sardines are small, low mercury fish to begin with. Both salmon and sardines contain selenium, a mineral that actually helps to clear mercury toxicity .
Seeds (poppy, sesame, chia, etc.). When you’re ready for a break from canned fish, try sprinkling some seeds on your meal. Just a tablespoon of poppy seeds on your salad, yogurt, or cereal can fulfill 13% of the daily recommended intake . A small portion of chia pudding, made with 1 ounce of chia seeds (about 3 tablespoons) can provide 18% of your daily ROI .
Legumes (certain beans and lentils). Beans vary a lot in their nutritional content, so if you are looking for calcium specifically, your top choices should be winged beans and white beans. One cup of cooked winged beans contains about 25% of your daily calcium needs, and one cup of cooked white beans contains about 13% [11,12]. While all beans and lentils are good for your health (high fiber, high in vitamins and minerals) other varieties contain less calcium.
Almonds. Almonds contain the most calcium of all the nuts with about 8% of the daily recommended calcium intake in a 1-ounce serving . If you eat almond butter or use almond flour in your recipes, you may be able to get more calcium per serving.
Dark, leafy greens (collard greens, spinach, kale). While cooked collard greens are the clear winner when it comes to calcium greens (25% of your daily calcium in 1 cup), spinach and kale provide some calcium as well . Calcium from spinach is not as absorbable as calcium from other foods, however, because of naturally occurring chemicals called oxalates.
Fortified foods and calcium supplements. While there are many natural plant and animal food sources of calcium, you can also make sure you’re getting enough calcium by eating foods that have had calcium added to them, or you can take a calcium-containing supplement. Some cereals, cooking flour, and cornmeal can contain up to 100% of your daily calcium recommendation in one serving. It is important to know that your body is unlikely to absorb all of this at once, so getting a little bit more here and there throughout the day from other food sources is the best way to make sure you are getting all you need.
There are also many formulas of calcium supplements that either offers calcium as a standalone nutrient or combine it with other important minerals and vitamins. Metabolic Maintenance® offers CalCitrate if you are looking for a very bioavailable form of calcium that can even be taken on an empty stomach.
However, imbalanced calcium and magnesium levels in the circulation can lead to increased cortisol (stress hormone) levels . A solution to that issue is Cal/Mag formulas. Calcium and magnesium are a fantastic combination as they work together to support physiological function in muscles and throughout the body. When taken before bed, Cal/Mag combination supplements can help to physically relax your body, and also support restful sleep .
If you are looking for a calcium supplement to support bone strength, specifically, Rebuild® may be the formula you are looking for. Rebuild® comes with either a little or a lot of vitamin D, and other complementary nutrients for calcium absorption and bone health. The formula is designed to support the reconstruction of lost bone mass and density.
Can I change my tolerance for dairy products?
You can be tested for genetic lactose intolerance, or you can try cutting out lactose products to see if that solves your digestive issues. If you are not sure about your tolerance to dairy products but suspect they are causing you some minor digestive issues, you can try taking probiotics and/or a digestive enzyme supplement with meals.
In some cases, you can “outsource” (if you will) your ability to digest dairy products to the microbes living in your gut. Probiotic bacteria live in the intestinal system and help to break down food that your body cannot. Some probiotic species secrete lactase, and can therefore break down some ingested lactose, even in the absence of endogenously produced lactase . Metabolic Maintenance®’s BioMaintenance™ Shelf Stable Probiotic supplement contains some of these strains of beneficial bacteria.
In addition to taking probiotics regularly, you can also take a digestive enzyme formula that actually contains active lactase. GluDaZyme™ is a comprehensive digestive enzyme that helps to digest lactose, as well as gluten, casein, complex carbohydrates, sugars, and fats. Rather than relying on your body to produce all of the right enzymes to break down a variety of common culprits of indigestion, GluDaZyme™ contains a proprietary blend of enzymes that aid in the digestive process. This is not a solution for people with autoimmune diseases or allergies, but may just be what your body needs to ease mild symptoms of digestive trouble.
- National Institutes of Health. “Calcium Fact Sheet for Consumers”. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed June 2021. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-Consumer/
- Oak, Sophia J, and Rajesh Jha. “The effects of probiotics in lactose intolerance: A systematic review.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition vol. 59,11 (2019): 1675-1683. doi:10.1080/10408398.2018.1425977
- Wemette, M., et al. “Public perceptions of antibiotic use on dairy farms in the United States.” Journal of Dairy Science 104.3 (2021): 2807-2821.
- Schiano, Angelina Nicole. “Consumer Perception of Dairy Foods: Sustainability and Processing Methods.” (2021).
- Lapides, Rebecca A., and Dennis A. Savaiano. “Gender, age, race and lactose intolerance: is there evidence to support a differential symptom response? A scoping review.” Nutrients 10.12 (2018): 1956.
- Nutrition Data. “Fish, sardines, canned in oil, Atlantic, drained solids with bone Nutrition Facts & Calories”. Accessed June 8, 2021. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/finfish-and-shellfish-products/4114/21
- Nutrition Data. “Fish, salmon, chum, canned, without salt, drained solids with bone Nutrition Facts & Calories”. Accessed June 8, 2021. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/finfish-and-shellfish-products/4114/21
- Ralston, Nicholas V C, and Laura J Raymond. “Dietary selenium’s protective effects against methylmercury toxicity.” Toxicology vol. 278,1 (2010): 112-23. doi:10.1016/j.tox.2010.06.004
- Nutrition Data. “spices, poppy seeds, Nutrition & Calories”. Accessed June 8, 2021. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/spices-and-herbs/203/2
- Nutrition Data. “seeds, chia seeds, dried, Nutrition & Calories”. Accessed June 8, 2021. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3061/2
- Nutrition Data. “Beans, winged, mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt Nutrition Facts & Calories”. Accessed June 8, 2021.https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4402/2
- Nutrition Data. “Beans, small white, mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt ”. Accessed June 8, 2021. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4402/2
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- Cart, Menu. “Why Calcium Magnesium 1: 1 Ratio is Better for You.”