Thursday, April 10, 2014

Can you get enough calcium without dairy milk?

My wonderful friend Julie recommended that I write this post a long time ago when I first started writing the blog and I'm really glad she did because I know it's the number one thing most people worry about when they cut dairy from their family's diet.  And it took me so long to get around to this post because the whole calcium and bone health thing is just very complicated.  However, both the short and long answers to this question are yes. Yes, you can get enough calcium without dairy milk.  

The short answer is yes because if you simply replace dairy milk with store-bought alternative milks, they are fortified with both calcium and vitamin D.  In fact, most of them now contain more calcium than cow's milk, although check labels to be sure. Or you can take a calcium supplement.  

But if you're anything like me, you want to know how your family can get these nutrients from whole foods.  As far as I understand, the type of calcium used to fortify foods is not as easily absorbed by your body as other sources.  However, that might actually be a good thing because in the last couple of years, studies have shown that many people may actually be getting more calcium and vitamin D than the recommended daily allowances (RDA), probably because there are so many foods fortified with these nutrients. Too much calcium has been linked a host of different problems including kidney stones, heart problems, and a possible increase in certain types of cancers.  

So one of the best ways to get your calcium is from plant sources, in part because you'll be getting a ton of other necessary nutrients as well.  Finally, scientists have begun to examine the importance of plant-sources of calcium.  One study found that eating more vegetables was associated with better bone density. Some vegetables with the highest content of calcium include:  spinach, broccoli, bok choy, kale and other dark leafy greens (such as turnip and dandelion). 

You might have heard that spinach should not be counted on as a good source of calcium.  This is because it contains oxalates that supposedly interfere with  absorption of the calcium.  The thing is, almost all of the foods we think of as really healthy (such as kale) contain oxalates.  So most of the advice I've heard from nutritionists on this is to eat spinach in moderation and not rely on it as the only source of calcium.  Also, eating spinach along with foods rich in Vitamin C can help mitigate the effects of the oxalates. 

As far as other ways to get calcium, sesame seeds are also high in calcium so I sprinkle them on top of rice anytime we eat it, even if it's not an Asian dish.  Just google "non-dairy sources of calcium" and tons of lists will come up which include foods such as little fishes with bones, tofu, beans (like navy beans), and blackstrap molasses.  We also drink a lot of oat straw tea in our house (my son has it sweetened with honey or stevia).  

To make everything more complicated, it turns out that the amount of calcium a person needs really varies from individual to individual.  High protein diets may increase calcium loss so meat-eaters need more than plant-based diet folks.  Plus, vitamin D levels affect calcium absorption so a lot of it varies from latitude to latitude, and how much time you spend outdoors. 

In addition, most of us are concerned about calcium intake because we want to have healthy teeth and bones.  But recent research has showed that bone health is heavily dependent on many other factors including doing enough weight-bearing exercise, and adequate consumption of other nutrients, including vitamin D, but also other ones most people don't typically associate with bone density. So, a lot of nutritionists are shifting the focus to an overall healthy lifestyle, with adequate but not excessive amounts of dietary calcium.  

Bottom Line:  

Here's what I have gotten out of all my research on calcium:  People need calcium for bone health but the experts don't really know how much is optimal.  Nutritional science is in its infancy and there is a long way to go before the answers to our questions are really clear. So for me, I try to consume plenty of calcium-rich leafy greens and eat whole foods that are not stripped of their nutrients.  Since my son pretty much won't touch anything green, I make sure he has had either calcium-fortified "milk" or a calcium supplement each day.  And I pray each and every day that he will outgrow this picky phase and take a cue from his parents, who love their veggies!  

Sources for this post are:

Various Nutrition Diva Podcasts  (I don't always agree with her on every point she makes, but she really does her research so I highly recommend checking her out)

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