Debunking The Myths of Calcium and Milk
By Carolina Schneider, MS, RD (@thegreenrd)
Originally from Brazil, Carolina moved to Florida in 2010 to complete her bachelor’s degree in Public Relations and Journalism, followed by a Master of Science in Nutrition & Dietetics. Carolina recently relocated to New York City to pursue her career as a dietitian in the health food industry. She is a Nutrition Consultant for JOI and one of our biggest fans! Carolina believes in the power of a whole-food, plant-based diet combined with physical activity for optimal health. Her favorite foods are dark chocolate and broccoli (preferably not together), and her favorite JOI recipe is the Golden Milk!
Long gone are the days when parents would serve their growing children a glass of cow's milk for strong bones… For several years, cow’s milk was seen as fuel for growth and development, and that’s mainly because it contains calcium. But, guess where cows get their calcium from? Surprise, surprise...from plants. Calcium is found in a variety of plant foods, from leafy greens to nuts, and you don’t necessarily need cow’s milk to meet your needs. Plus, relying on dairy for calcium comes with baggage—we’re talking increased risk for chronic diseases, exposure to hormones and antibiotics, lactose intolerance, increased inflammation and high saturated fat intake (which may increase cholesterol levels).
Photo by Tamara Chemij from Burst
CALCIUM’S ROLE IN THE BODY
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and essential for bone and teeth health. In fact, 99% of calcium in the body is stored in the bones and teeth, where it helps form and maintain bone structure and hardness. Besides keeping us on our feet (literally), calcium is required for transmission of signals in the nervous system, meaning it helps your brain chat with the rest of your body. It also plays a role in hormone secretion, muscle function (including your heart), and the constriction and dilation of blood vessels, which keeps your blood pressure in check, and blood clotting.
P.S. Because calcium serves such critical functions, the body keeps blood levels tightly regulated, so concentration remains constant. If blood levels are low, the bones release calcium into the blood (so generous!) to bring it back to normal levels. If blood levels are high, the extra calcium is stored in the bones or secreted in the urine. With that said, blood calcium levels do not significantly fluctuate with changes in calcium intake.
HOW MUCH CALCIUM DO I NEED?
Because the body does not make calcium, we need to get it from food. The daily recommendation is 1,000 mg for adults up to 50 years of age, and 1,200 mg for women older than 50 years old as they experience more bone loss.
P.S. In case you didn’t know, calcium and vitamin D are BFFs. That’s because the body requires vitamin D to absorb calcium, so they are always together. This means that even if you’re consuming enough calcium, it may all go to waste if you don’t have enough vitamin D to help absorb it. So, make sure you get that pretty face of yours in the sunshine every so often.
Besides having enough vitamin D to ensure adequate calcium, another way to promote strong and healthy bones is weight-bearing exercise. Whether it’s lifting weights, practicing your dance moves, hiking a mountain, playing a game of tennis, or simply going for a jog, exercise is important to keep your bones strong!
Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst
WHAT IF I DON’T GET ENOUGH?
As we talked earlier, insufficient intake of calcium lowers blood levels, causing it to leach from the bones. Although in the short-time there aren’t any major complications, over time, calcium deficiency can lead to hypocalcemia, loss of bone mass, osteopenia, osteoporosis (weak, fragile bones), all which increase the risk for bone fractures. Calcium deficiency may be caused by poor calcium intake over a long period of time, hormonal changes, or medications that decrease calcium absorption. Symptoms include muscle cramps, confusion, weak and brittle nails, numbness or tingling in hands and feet.
SHOULD I SUPPLEMENT?
Healthy individuals should be able to obtain adequate amounts of calcium through foods, so supplementation is usually not necessary unless recommended by a physician. Studies show that those following a fully plant-based diet who consume adequate amounts of calcium through the diet are at no greater risk for developing bone fractures than those following a standard diet. Supplementation may be beneficial for older women who are at a higher risk for calcium deficiency, bone loss and are not meeting calcium needs through food.
OK, SO WHERE DO I GET CALCIUM FROM?
- Almonds, Brazil nuts
- Beans (white, navy, black)
- Cruciferous veggies (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, okra)
- Root veggies (butternut squash, sweet potato)
- Chia seeds, flax seeds
- Dried figs
- Leafy greens (bok choy, kale, collards, turnips, mustard greens)
- Soybeans (edamame, tofu)
- Sunflower seeds, sesame seeds
- Tahini (sesame seed paste)
Plus, many foods are fortified with calcium; these include cereals, orange juice, and alternative milks and soy products.
Photo by Sarah Pflug from Burst
WHY IS JOI NOT FORTIFIED WITH CALCIUM?
As “JOI” stands for “Just One Ingredient,” it is our mission to provide a wholesome product made with just that-- one ingredient. We believe in the health benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet, with nutrient-dense ingredients as they come from earth, staying away from synthetic and artificial ones. Fortifying our product would stir us away from our mission and values. Plus, we believe in a food-first approach when it comes to meeting nutrient needs, as foods provide the most bioavailable form of nutrients as well as many other benefits (fiber, phytochemicals, etc.) that supplementation and fortification do not. With that said, if you’re mindful about implementing calcium-rich sources into your diet, you should be able to meet daily needs. But again, individuals with absorption issues or nutrient deficiencies may benefit from supplementation and fortified foods.
CALCIUM AND DAIRY MYTHS, DEBUNKED
Myth 1: The only good sources of calcium are dairy products
As mentioned earlier, there are many plant-based sources of calcium. These foods are especially important in the diets of those who are lactose intolerant, have a milk allergy, or want to follow a fully plant-based lifestyle. In fact, when consumed in adequate amounts, plant foods can provide the same or even more calcium than a glass of milk. Take tofu, for example: ½ cup of tofu offers 430 mg of calcium, while one cup of cow’s milk offers 300 mg.
Myth 2: Cow’s milk gives strong bones
Contrary to popular belief, studies have found that there is no strong association between calcium from dairy sources and bone strength. In fact, one study conducted over 12 years with more than 70,000 women found that there was no significant difference in the numbers of bone fractures between individuals who drank one glass of milk a week or less, and those who drank two or more. In another large study, higher milk consumption during teenage years was associated with higher incidence of fractures in women, and higher mortality in both men and women in adult life.
Myth 3: You cannot get too much calcium
When talking about calcium, there can be “too much of a good thing.” High calcium intake (above the upper limits) usually happens from calcium supplementation, not from food. Too much calcium from supplements may increase the risk of kidney stones in adults, interfere with absorption of iron and zinc, cause constipation and muscle pain. Some research suggests that additional calcium may accumulate in the arteries and contribute to plaque formation (which increases the risk for heart attacks).
DAIRY COMES WITH BAGGAGE…
It’s no surprise that consumers are shifting toward dairy-free alternatives (hello, JOI milk). Aside from the fact that more than 65 percent of the population are lactose intolerant, research studies have linked regular consumption of dairy products to increased risk for breast cancer, and prostate cancer (another study on dairy and prostate cancer here). Plus, a study conducted among lactose intolerant individuals (little to no dairy consumption) found that they had significant lower risks for lung, breast, and ovarian cancers when compared to those who consume dairy regularly and did not experience the same risk reductions.
P.S. If you are trying to limit dairy consumption (whether it is for health, intolerance or other reasons) and suspect you are not meeting the adequate calcium intake through foods, it’s important to consult with a Registered Dietitian or with a physician before changing your diet or taking any supplements.
Now that we have spilled the tea on all things calcium, it’s time for an almond milk latte.