A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a mom in my office about a recent visit to the pediatrician for her kids annual check-ups. She explained to me how the pediatrician asked how much milk her kids drank. Being a health-conscious family, she reported "none". The pediatrician then went-on to berate her about how milk and other diary products are essential for calcium intake and how "chocolate milk is better than no milk at all".
My first reaction was disbelief at how this medical practitioner was so ignorant about the negative effects of milk and dairy and the superior foods for calcium absorption. After-all, dairy has long been avoided in the health and wellness world. The truth is, most traditional medical providers get little education on nutrition and what they do get is mostly biased dietary guidelines from the government and other competing agencies. I want my patients to be better educated and to know better!
We are indoctrinated at a young age that milk makes you grow BIG and STRONG! I'm from Wisconsin... I remember in kindergarten learning all sorts of songs about cows, milk, cheese, and other dairy products. The truth is, the majority of people (~75%) lack the enzymes to completely break-down dairy and suffer digestive discomfort as a result. Studies have also shown that dairy consumption in men can lead to a huge increase in prostate cancer risk. Finally, if you are drinking milk for bone health, think again. Recent studies have shown that milk consumption actually has a NEGATIVE effect on bone strength. WHOA! I encourage all my patients to avoid dairy regardless of whether they currently have digestive symptoms. The vast majority of people who do feel better. It's also worth noting that not all dairy is equal. Grass-fed butter and Ghee can be tolerated for most people.
The most common improvements reported when patients go off dairy include improvement in pain, weight loss, clear sinuses, less headaches, less joint stiffness, and clearer thinking. If you haven't gone off dairy for a minimum of 3-weeks and seen how much better you feel, what are you waiting for?
Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our body. So if we aren't getting our calcium from milk & dairy products, where can we get calcium in our diet? The most calcium-packed, food that should be in everyone's diet is KALE. If you don't like raw kale, try cooking it or mixing it with other leafy greens. There are a ton of healthy kale recipes out there, give some a try. I personally mix mine with other leafy greens and have a small salad with every meal (yes... including breakfast). Other good sources of calcium include sardines, beans (white/kidney), broccoli, and almonds. I also supplement using whey protein which is tolerated well by most people. For people who tolerate dairy well (or refuse to stop drinking milk) I recommend organic whole-milk.
More important than the AMOUNT of calcium you get is the ABSORPTION of the calcium... that is, how much calcium can the body actually absorb and use? Magnesium, vitamin K, and vitamin D all help with calcium absorption so eating your calcium as opposed to taking a calcium supplement results in higher absorption and better usability.
Bone health is so much more than calcium. In fact, perhaps the most important vitamin for bone health is also the one most people are deficient in...Vitamin D. Dairy products and milk don't actually have much naturally occurring Vitamin D, rather synthetic Vitamin D is added which has far lower absorption rates and activity. There are three types of Vitamin D with different levels of absorption and activity. Vitamin D3 which we only get from the sun is the best form of Vitamin D. The next best form is D2 which can be found in animal fats, especially fish such as halibut, carp, and mackerel. You would have to consistently eat a lot of high-quality fish to maintain healthy levels of Vitamin D in your blood. By far the best source of Vitamin D is from the sun. So how much sun should we be getting?
The USDA recommends getting at least 600 IU of Vitamin D a day (this is the amount needed per day to avoid deficiency symptoms for most people) but in order to reap many of the benefits of Vitamin D, daily doses of 1000 - 10,000 IU are recommended. For lighter-skinned individuals this equates to about 10-20 minutes of mid-day (11am - 3pm) summer sun a day. For darker-skinned people this could be closer to 1-hour per day. The important thing here is to know your body. Pale-skinned people and red haired individuals are extra sensitive to the skin so may only require 10-minutes of sun to reach their Vitamin D limit. Twenty minutes may be too much sun for some people (especially young kids) if their bodies aren't used to it and could result in skin damage. If in doubt, start with 10-minutes a day and work up to 20-minutes. After that, practice safe-sun practices which I have outlined here.
Another important mineral for bone health is magnesium. Magnesium is most highly concentrated in spinach, chard, avocados, black beans, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and dark chocolate. Seeing a common-thread here? Leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and beans... high in calcium, magnesium, and Vitamin K which are all essential for proper bone health.
Finally, daily weight-bearing exercise is vital for bone health (and overall health too)! Things like walking, running, hiking, and lifting weights all put good-stress on the bones which causes them to grow denser and stronger.