I was at a wellness speaking event recently on digestive health. The keynote MD suggested that because dairy is so difficult for many people to digest (research indicates up to 70% of Americans are lactose-intolerant!), reducing dairy intake can have a hugely beneficial impact on the gut. For many people, generalized stomach upset (that is, ongoing discomfort with no discernable cause) may actually be symptomatic of a dairy allergy - and they don't realize that's why!
During the Q & A, a woman inquired as to where we were supposed to get calcium if we don’t consume dairy. I’ve heard this over and over from many people toying with the idea of transitioning to a more plant-based diet: what other source of calcium is there? How do we strengthen bones and teeth without it?
While the MD at the event suggested a supplement as the best replacement when going dairy-free, I would hazard that the real-food option is almost always preferable to a pill. (Consider that most calcium supplements are calcium carbonate – essentially chalk. We don’t usually eat rocks, so there has to be a better way to get this mineral into our bodies.)
There are a number of whole, plant-based foods that provide the body with ample calcium, along with other vitamins, nutrients, and fiber that promote full-body health and balance (without any of the side effects of dairy).
Many plant-foods - collards, bok choy, spinach, baked beans, almonds, other nuts and seeds, and sea vegetables – are great sources of calcium. They blend into a number of recipes [check out our e-book on Blurb for some ideas] and can be easily assimilated by the body. In plants, calcium is naturally bonded to other minerals and phytonutrients: because they are whole nutritional ‘bundles’, the body interprets them as safe to absorb and directs them straight to the bones. This is great news if you’re concerned about maintaining bone density, but worried that leaving dairy behind might set you up for an increased risk for osteoporosis.
Interestingly, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “The countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis are the ones where people drink the most milk, and have the most calcium in their diets. [...] the connection between dairy consumption and bone health is almost non-existent”.
Lactose (the sugar in dairy) is broken down in the body by an enzyme called lactase. We produce less and less lactase as we age, which is why many acquire a lactose intolerance in their twenties. Without enough lactase, lactose cannot be broken down in the small intestine, and must move to the large intestine for processing. Here, bacteria go to work on whole lactose molecules. This over-activity in the gut causes the symptoms of intolerance many know too well: gas, bloating, and cramping. When the gut works overtime to process something it’s not meant to, nutrient absorption can be compromised, leading to mineral loss system-wide.
In the oft-cited China Study, Dr. T. Colin Campbell looked at the instances of osteoporosis and bone fractures in various cultures worldwide. His findings showed that countries with higher milk intake had more instances of both these things. He determined that when we consume animal-based proteins (like dairy), the pH balance of the body is impacted – animal products are quite acidic. In order to rebalance the body’s pH, calcium (an alkalizing mineral) is leached from the bones. For each gram of animal protein in the diet, approximately one milligram of calcium is eliminated through the urine. There is also a correlation between excess Vitamin A (which is added to many milk products) and weakened bones. Not only do plant sources allow us to absorb calcium more effectively, they don’t incite the same calcium-loss as animal sources can.
Experiment with some non-dairy sources of calcium this week and see what works for you. An easy place to start - and a favorite over at FtGU - is almond milk. It substitutes perfectly for regular dairy and provides the kick of calcium and vitamins the body needs. As an added bonus, non-animal dairy products lower the risk of the other health concerns associated with a high intake of animal-dairy (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, endocrine disruption). Your bones - and your body - will thank you for the making the switch!