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Articles > Got Calcium?

by Peter Holleran, DC

   "And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." (Gen. 1:29-30)

   Among a spate of recent articles, thinly veiled as promo pieces for the dairy industry, was Jane Brody's "Get Calcium" (Marin Independent Journal, Jan. 13, 2003). Although she briefly mentions non-dairy sources, the basic message of her article, glaring in the omission of decades of contrasting research, is that if you drink tons of milk and take lots of calcium not only will your bones be strong but you will greatly decrease your risk of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and even cancer. Apparently the push is on to make milk the greatest thing since sliced bread. One national publication has even advocated ice cream for heart health. Unfortunately, this is wishful thinking, at best.

   Rather than elaborate on the numerous health problems associated with excess milk consumption, or the fact that millions of people worldwide have no bone problems whatsoever with very low dairy intake, or the fact that no animal on earth drinks milk after it is weaned, I will draw attention to problems with the basic arguments given by milk promoters themselves.

   Research suggests that, despite dairy industry hype, calcium absorption from milk is relatively poor due to its high protein content. Protein digestion produces acidity, which requires calcium to neutralize. High protein, particularly animal protein, eventually causes a net calcium loss from bone to restore the calcium thus used as a buffering agent. It is not surprising that countries where traditional diets are low on meat and dairy have the lowest incidence of bone fractures. Conversely, according to Harvard nutritionist Walter Willett, "countries with the highest average calcium intake tend to have higher, not lower, hip fracture rates." with The United States, with the highest dairy intake has also the highest rate of osteoporosis. Japanese women traditionally consume twenty percent of the protein as their Western counterparts and have approximately twenty percent of the osteoporosis. Dairy intake is also very low. (For more on acid/alkaline balance and its affects on muscle and bone mass, especially as one ages, see "Diet, Aging and Muscle" from Ultrafit.com).

   Simply drinking more milk, therefore, is not the answer.Nor, unfortunately, is merely supplementing with mineral calcium. Ms. Brady favors dolomite (calcium carbonate), a form with questionable ease of assimilation. She omits to inform her readers that calcium must be balanced with magnesium, and that the trace mineral boron, vitamin C, and many other factors, including a proper balance of hormones, are essential for bone formation. The bone matrix must also be strong enough to hold the calcium in place. You can't just mechanically pack in lots of calcium. It is a complicated affair with no one magic nutrient the key. Some studies have even shown a net calcium LOSS from calcium supplementation! In many cases this may be because of the creation of an imbalance in the calcium/magnesium ratio. Too much calcium and too little magnesium leads to poor calcium absorption. The proper ratio is approximately 2:1. Cow's milk, on the other hand, has 8 times as much calcium as magnesium! Without an increase in magnesium, found largely in green vegetables, as well as nuts and seeds, simply adding elemental calcium can lead to problems. A study of 78000 nurses in 1997 showed that women drinking more than one glass of milk a day had a 45% greater chance of hip fracture. Numerous other studies have shown little effect on bone mass from calcium supplementation at all age levels, but especially so after puberty. Do you think it might be possible that the recommendations of the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) might in any way be biased due to major funding from Dairy Farmers Incorporated as well as Bizell Worldwide, creators of the "Got Milk" campaign? (Only 20% of the NOF funding, moreover, goes for actual research into the causes and cure of osteoporosis).

   A more recent ad campaign has begun using bone xrays to promote the need for milk. My feeling is that the subliminal message is "bones are white and milk is white, therefore milk builds strong bones". In any case, Californians 18 and over are invited to submit xrays for the ads, selections of which will be "based on artistic/creative considerations only." So much for hard science.

   Another thing we know. Not only high protein diets but also high refined sugar intake leads to calcium loss. A study of 9500 females age 65 and over published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism concluded that bone density and body weight were not significant factors in the increased risk of fractures, but that blood sugar problems disrupting the delicate balance of the bone matrix were. Soft drinks, particularly colas, contain 10 teaspoons of sugar per can, and also have a high phosphoric acid content, another major negative which requires calcium for neutralization. Think of cola drinks dissolving your bones as they would a set of dentures left in a glass overnight. Combine a low level of fruits and vegetables (particularly greens) with a high level of burgers and colas and one could well be on the way to thin bones or numerous other problems. Since this is the typical teen diet Ms. Brody's answer is for them to drink lots of milk, but that is not really a solution because milk is high in phosphorus which further reduces available calcium. The calcium in cow's milk is also tightly bound with casein, a strong protein used in making glue. Only the digestive system of a cow is designed to efficiently handle it.

   Pioneering dental researcher Dr. Weston Price years ago noted the loss of bone in teeth and dental arches in indigenous peoples after they abandoned their native diets for the diet of the trading post or city, typically high in refined sugars and flours. He also noticed the progressive decay of health and bone structure in successive generations of cats fed pasteurized milk. Cow's milk (before pasteurization and homogenation) is nature's perfect food - but only for baby cows! When fed pasteurized milk, however, they die within sixty days. Homogenization has been linked to arteriosclerosis and heart disease due to the release of xanthine oxidase - an enzyme not found in human milk or raw cow's milk - which attaches to the smaller fat globules produced by homogenization, passes through arterial walls and damages the inner lining, leading to plaque formation.

   No animal drinks milk after it is weaned. The ways of nature are awesome and mysterious. How do the experts account for the millions in great health who consume minimal dairy products? How do they account for the calcium in eggshells, or in shellfish? The last I heard neither chickens or crabs were big milk drinkers - nor are elephants, who have probably the strongest bones on earth. You don't need a nutrition degree from Harvard to see that fear-based arguments based largely on "research" funded by the dairy industry do not hold up under scrutiny. Jack LaLanne, super healthy at age 90, eats 6 fruits and 13 vegetables a day (easily accomplished through juicing) but no dairy, proclaiming "I'm not a suckling calf!" Studies have shown, in fact, that when most of the dietary protein comes from vegetable sources a positive calcium balance can be maintained on as little as 425 mg of calcium a day. This is a far cry from the RDA of 1200 mg. Native South Africans consume as little as 200 mg and have one of the lowest fracture rates in the world. In her zeal for milk products Ms. Brody even expresses pity on Blacks, Asians, Native Americans and other lactose intolerant groups historically unadapted to milk drinking who must nevertheless, according to her, be suffering from a lack of calcium and should therefore force themselves to drink three glasses of milk a day, which they can safely do as long as they "drink it slowly"! Tell this to black athlete Florence Griffeth Joyner who, according to a review of her autopsy report by Robert Cohen, executive director of the Dairy Education Board, died of an allergic reaction to milk and not an epileptic attack as previously reported. Although that is only opinion the following is worth noting: "At the time of her death there were traces of cheese in her stomach and every organ of her body was covered with mucus. This mucus was caused by the number one ingredient in milk, casein." Dr. Benjamin Spock and numerous physicians have considered casein the cause of many allergies.

   There must be a better way, and there is. Rather than struggle to consume large amounts of calcium what is important is to efficiently absorb what you do consume and, more importantly, to avoid depleting factors. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Nature has not made it difficult to get sufficient calcium when you are also getting everything else the body needs in natural quantities. One needn't be a total vegetarian. Meat and fish, even modest amounts of (preferably raw milk) cheese and yogurt are O.K., but too much leads to a negative mineral balance (among other things) due to the acidity created by protein digestion. (Another problem with today's meat is that most of it comes from factory-farmed animals fed large amounts of grain, which produces a high saturated fat content, as opposed to traditional grass-fed animals that are naturally high in healthy omega-3 fats. Eat only grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free beef and your body and your heart will thank you). Another benefit of eating dark green leafy vegetables, as well as brocolli, olive oil, and avocados, is because of their Vitamin K content. Recent studies have found Vitamin K to be a strong bone-builder, helping with poorly healing fractures as well as preventing excess calcium from being deposited on artery walls. In a 1984 study of osteoporosis related fractures patients in the group had 70% less vitamin K levels than controls. A vitamin K-dependent enzyme called MGP which accumulates in elastin fibers keeps excess calcium from hardening arterial wall tissue. Finally, a study from the late 1940's found Vitamin K helpful against tooth decay.

   Traditional cultures such as the long-lived Bulgarians have indeed thrived while using dairy products, but always only raw milk, preferably goat milk, in a curdled or cultured form, such as cottage cheese, buttermilk, or yogurt. They also engaged in alot of hard physical work. Pasteurization denatures or alters milk protein, already difficult for humans to assimilate, and also destroys enzymes and other substances (such as lecithin) that aid in processing milk fat. Goat milk is by far the best. The size of the fat particles are five times smaller than those in cow milk and therefore closer to mother's milk. The protein is also less allergenic. Curdling or culturing partially breaks down milk protein making it easier to digest. The problem is it is difficult finding small, local herds producing clean, raw, cow or goat milk, since raw milk dairies are frequently under attack in California. At the time of this writing there are a couple of outfits selling raw dairy products in health stores. For the most part, however, a highly processed and unnatural substance is foisted on the public. One feels sympathy for the economic plight of the majority of dairy farmers, yet the answer lies in lobbying for a return to a smaller scale, more natural system of production.

   Diet is not the only important consideration. You cannot be sedentary and maintain healthy bones. Weight bearing exercise, walking, hiking, running, etc., is absolutely essential for bone strength. Astronauts in space experience a loss of bone due to the absence of gravity. Long-distance cyclists who do not add running to their training regime have also been shown to lose bone mass on long rides because cycling does not produce sufficient weight bearing stress to maintain bone. In fact, a recent John Hopkins study found that swimming, ordinary walking, and using exercise machines may not prevent bone loss either. That is because they do not provide the "impact" forces necessary to protect bones. Jogging, hiking up AND down hills, jumping rope, and strength training (lifting weights, doing squats and lunges while holding dumb-bells, etc.) help bones much more. However, the evidence is not totally conclusive on this matter. Certainly, for those who already have osteoporosis or weakened bones, non-weight bearing activities such as swimming and cycling can still be useful. Because the amount of muscle mass affects bone mass, non-impact forms of exercise may therefore stimulate bone growth, although less effectively. The strongest bones have been found in those who combine an aerobics fitness program with strength training exercises. Squash players rate high on bone density tests as the frequent impact forces from stopping and starting stresses bone effectively. (For more on this subject please see "Cyclists May Risk Bone Loss").

   Smoking is also a risk factor. A Harvard study found a 20% increased risk of hip fracture among smokers of all ages compared to non-smokers. Injectible contraceptives such as Depo-Provera reduce bone-protecting estrogen leading to a 2000% increased rate of hip bone loss compared to non-users (1.1% a year vs. 0.05%). Excessive exercise causing a significant drop in body fat in women to the point of stopping ovulation can cause an increased risk of osteoporosis, although this would be somewhat compensated for by weight bearing activity.

   The major reason drinking milk may help growing adolescents is most likely from its displacement of soft drinks in the diet, not because of the milk per se. It is not that a large amount of calcium is absorbed, but rather a massive sugar and phosphoric acid intake is reduced, causing less existing calcium to be lost. The negative effects that excessive insulin stimulation causes for all bodily systems is also largely avoided.

   If you are a starving child from a third world country, or a teen living on soda and chips, milk will prevent malnutrition - but it is not the answer to the calcium problem, nor is it necessary to promote optimum health.