Are You Overdosing on Dairy?
BY: Densie Webb
Everyone knows calcium-rich dairy foods are important for building strong bones and protecting against osteoporosis. Right? Wrong, says Amy Joy Lanou, an assistant professor of health and wellness at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the co-author of the new book Building Bone Vitality.
After poring over more than 1,200 studies conducted during the past 30 years, Lanou and co-author Michael Castleman concluded that dairy foods and other high-protein animal foods actually contribute to osteoporosis by triggering calcium loss from bones. The real causes of osteoporosis, they say, are eating too much animal protein -- including dairy foods -- and not enough fruits and vegetables.
The Bone Vitality Theory
Your body vigilantly maintains a tight balance of acid and alkaline compounds in the blood. Proteins are made up of compounds called amino acids. Load up on amino acids and your body siphons calcium (which is alkaline) out of your bones to bring acid-alkaline levels back into balance. Lanou points out that people who eat high-protein diets tend to have high levels of calcium in their urine -- proof, she says, of calcium being leached out of bone.
While most experts recommend consuming three servings of low-fat or fat-free dairy a day to boost calcium intake and improve bone health, Lanou says that advice, while well-intentioned, is misguided. She believes you should eat less animal protein (no more than one to two servings of meat, dairy and eggs a day) and more fruits and vegetables. Then, instead of needing the recommended dose of 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams per day, 500 to 800 milligrams of calcium is plenty. Fruits and vegetables not only contain lots of acid-neutralizing compounds, but also provide several other nutrients essential for bone-building, like boron, copper, magnesium, folic acid and vitamins C and K.
Bone of Contention
Not all experts agree with Lanou, however. Connie Weaver, a professor of food science and nutrition at Purdue University and an expert in calcium metabolism, points out, “We now have studies that show if more calcium is lost in the urine, more is absorbed from the intestinal tract to compensate for that loss -- without having to eat more calcium.” The result, she says, is zero change in calcium in the body.
Bottom Line for Bones
While experts don’t agree on whether the acid-alkaline theory for bone health rings true, they do agree that a plant-based diet is healthy. Like the Mediterranean diet, the original DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), vegetarian diets and Asian diets, Building Bone Vitality recommends eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, with animal protein taking a backseat.
For a healthful, plant-based diet that keeps one eye on bone health, try this:
- Eat six to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That boils down to at least two servings at each meal. Include calcium-rich vegetables such as broccoli, kale, bok choy, beet greens, Swiss chard, collard greens and soybeans.
- If calcium-rich vegetables are not a part of your daily diet, take a calcium supplement or drink calcium-fortified juice.
- Include no more than two servings of foods rich in animal protein each day.
Densie Webb is a registered dietitian and a freelance health and nutrition writer and editor. Densie is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.