With social season upon us, eggnog, cheese balls, and baked goods are often within reach. I’ve noticed several friends avoiding dairy foods and even baked goods than contain them. Some have been told by a health practitioner that a vegan diet is the way to good health. Others claim they feel better if they don’t eat dairy.
Our mothers had the right idea by encouraging us to drink our milk. Dairy foods are nutritious, on average supplying 70 percent of our calcium and 18 percent of our protein, and a good source of vitamins D, B-12 and A, and potassium. The body needs calcium for numerous functions, including building and maintaining bones and teeth, blood clotting, transmitting nerve impulses and regulation of the heart beat.
On the down side, full fat dairy products contain high amounts of saturated fat, the type that has been associated with increasing blood cholesterol levels.
Milk critics claim that eating animal protein creates an acidic environment in the kidneys, which our bodies neutralize by leaching calcium from the bones. Some studies suggest high protein diets increase risk of fractures, while others associate them with stronger bones. It is still unclear what level of protein intake provides the best protection against osteoporosis, and more research is needed. According to the majority of scientific studies, eating dairy products does not appear to harm bones.
High intakes of dairy foods are linked to a higher risk of prostate cancer in some studies, but not in others. At this point, there are too few studies to draw firm conclusions.
The same holds true for ovarian cancer. Researchers found an increased risk only when they looked at women who consumed at least two and a half cups of milk per day, and the link was very weak.
After reviewing some expert recommendations, it seems that adults may not need the equivalent of three glasses of milk per day as MyPlate.gov suggests. The Harvard School of Public Health suggests we limit dairy to one to two servings per day. They have designed their own healthy eating plate as a guideline.
According to Harvard, in countries like India, Japan and Peru, where daily calcium intake is as low as 300 milligrams, less than a third of the U.S. recommendation for adults, the incidence of bone fractures is quite low. Of course, these countries differ in other important bone health factors, as well.
There is much more than calcium needed for optimal bone health. Vitamin D found in milk, salmon and from sunlight encourages greater calcium absorption into the blood and minimizes calcium lost from the urine.
Vitamin K, which is found mainly in green, leafy vegetables, plays important roles in calcium regulation and bone formation.
Performing regular, weight-bearing exercise is also important to build maximum bone density and strength.
At moderate levels, consuming calcium and dairy products has benefits beyond bone health, including possibly lowering the risk of high blood pressure and colon cancer. While the blood pressure benefits appear fairly small, the protection against colon cancer seems somewhat larger, with one or two cups of milk per day.
For those who “feel better” or are unable to digest dairy products, or prefer a vegan diet, calcium is in dark green, leafy vegetables, such as kale and collard greens, as well as in dried beans and legumes.
It’s also found in spinach and chard, but these vegetables contain oxalic acid, which combines with the calcium to form calcium oxalate, a chemical salt that makes the calcium less available to the body. Fortunately, a variety of calcium-fortified foods, such as orange juice and soy milk, are now on the market.
In summary, it is possible, but takes more planning and nutrition knowledge to obtain the nutrients dairy products provide. According to the majority of research, for adults, two servings a day of low-fat dairy products can be part of a healthy diet.
Margie Mansure, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and extension agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension. She offers personalized classes to improve the health of citizens in Watauga County through worksites, schools and community groups. To contact Margie, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (828) 264-3061.