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Is Dairy Your Best Source of Calcium?

Written by: Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, CPT - Life Time Fitness 

More than ever, consumers are second guessing if milk really “does a body good.” As a culture, we understand dairy is the dominant food source of calcium, a mineral necessary for bone health.  But if much of our population is sensitive to dairy, should milk continue to be recommended as the gold standard in order to meet calcium needs?  Here’s a look at why we should reconsider the common three-a-day recommendation.

Calcium is important

Although milk can be a good source of protein and other vitamins and minerals, its calcium levels are why it is most often recommended on a daily basis. Calcium is a mineral that has multiple roles in the body, including building and maintaining bones and teeth, clotting blood and regulating your heart rhythm.[i] Getting adequate calcium from early childhood well into adulthood is crucial to help slow down the loss of bone density as we age, and in preventing osteoporosis. Our bodies will actually pull (or leach) calcium from our bones to compensate when we are deficient. 

Although we are certain adequate calcium is key to reducing the risk of osteoporosis, the recommended amount of calcium we should consume on a daily basis is unclear. Currently, the National Dairy Counsel recommends 1,000–1,200 milligrams of calcium each day for adults. This equates to approximately three, eight-ounce glasses of milk. 

Many researchers are suggesting that this recommendation is too high and based only on short-term studies that determined the maximum daily amount of absorbable calcium. Although our population tends to think more as better, longer-term studies are suggesting individuals who consume less milk are at no greater risk for breaking bones. One British research group even suggested that daily calcium intake as low as 700 milligrams was sufficient.

Besides calcium, other components and nutrients should be considered to support bone health.  Adequate calcium levels should be maintained, but getting enough vitamin K, vitamin D, and physical activity are equally important factors in decreasing the risk of osteoporosis.

The dairy debate

More long-term studies are needed to clear up what amount of daily calcium is needed for our population, but as the recommendation stands today, many people are drawn to the convenience of milk products.  Milk is only one of many sources of calcium and there are important reasons why it might not be the best for everyone. 

Lactose Intolerance tends to be a common diagnosis among the adult population. Consuming milk products can cause bloating, gas and other gastrointestinal discomfort in individuals — making milk a less convenient food to consume on a daily basis. Milk allergy is also on the rise and is among top most common food allergies to date.  It is responsible for causing upper respiratory issues and sinusitis. If you often get sinus infections, removing milk products from your diet might be a primary recommendation.

Recently, there have also been concerns with high levels of milk intake being linked to ovarian and prostate cancers.  Although more research is needed, one recent pool of 500,000 women found that women with high intakes of lactose (milk sugar), equivalent to about three cups per day, had a modestly higher risk for ovarian cancer.  This could be due to the way milk is manufactured today, with changes to its hormone composition.  Another Harvard study found that men who drank two or more glasses of milk each day were twice as likely to develop prostate cancer as those who didn’t drink milk at all — with calcium cited as the concern.i 

Although more research is needed, there are definitely some statistics that show high milk intake may not be safe.  The quality of milk consumed by most of the population should also be taken into consideration. Conventional milk today is quite different from its original state. Naturally, it is full of milk fat (that promotes absorption of fat soluble vitamin D) and lacks added hormones. This is much different than our current and commonly recommended skimmed versions today with hormones added through processing. 

Meeting calcium needs without milk

We know calcium, as well as other factors, are important for our bone health and preventing our risk for osteoporosis.  The recommendation is still unclear of how much is enough, but more long-term studies should help assess this.  If we choose to continue to drink milk, it may be advantageous to drink less than the recommended three servings per day and to drink it in its more natural, full-fat form. 

Other individuals choose to get calcium from other sources, such as dark green, leafy vegetables as well as dried beans and legumes. Calcium can also be ingested as a supplement, which is a good practice to ensure adequate daily intake. 

Remember, to truly mount a defense against osteoporosis, daily physical activity and optimal levels of vitamin K and vitamin D are needed in addition to calcium.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

Share thoughts and post questions below.


[i] Nutrition Source.  “Calcium and Milk: What’s the Best for Your Bones and Health?” Accessed May 20, 2011. 

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Reader Comments (4)

While the end of the article is the only place where options for non-dairy calcium foods is listed, the rest of the article appears to be more of an Anti-Dairy campaign. It seems the author and Lifetime- for publishing this article- are resting on the idea their readers will not look too deeply at what is written - they hope we are too stupid to catch on. Here are some examples where the author hoped you'd loose focus. 1) When the author writes of the study linking prostate cancer to drinking milk, she quickly adds to the end of the paragraph that CALCIUM, is the main concern!! This does not imply that milk is the culprit, but a vitamin found within may be to blame. If calcium is the concern for prostate cancer, then ALL calcium containing foods should be eaten with concern, not just dairy. 2) The author explains how milk is made towards the end of the article. She states that milk today is full of added hormones. Her specifically chosen wording leads to reader to believe ALL milk has added hormones. This is NOT true!! If you have been in any major grocery store in the last few years or longer, there are signs, stickers and other forms of advertising stating there are NO added hormones to most of the milk available. A pledge taken by the farmers and stores to protect the consumer. Not all stores and milk producers have taken this pledge, but the majority have. I have to wonder where the author learned to produce milk. Has she worked on a dairy, received a degree from an agricultural university in food/ dairy management? It seems she did not or she would have also made a point to tell the readers how important it is to buy milk that is not kept under white lights. As most stores today do. If milk is packaged in a see through container- clear glass/ plastic- white lights in display cases DESRTOY the nutrients in it. As consumers, if you drink milk you should demand the store you purchase it from use yellow/amber or even better, no lights at all in they dairy cases. Many stores are reluctant to do this because " it doesn't look good". Why is it more important for the cooler to look good than for nutrients to be in the product? Vanity? Please read this article and use it for what you can, and then re-read it noticing the holes and one sidedness in the story. Milk may not be right for everyone, but it is not the enemy the author has flagged it as.

May 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbeth

I agree with Beth. I am also disappointed that the article includes scary stats but very little in the way of advice on how to meet one's calcium needs without milk (given that you've indeed been scared away from it).
The dairy industry is slowly responding to media and consumer concerns about several factors that make mass produced milk less than optional: BGH and lactose intolerance. Those are probably the easier fixes....I hope that opaque packaging and an organic lifestyle for the cows is next, so we don't have to pay twice as much for organic milk.

May 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

November 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterqhgpfs qhgpfs

I've read that it takes a certain amount of calcium just to digest milk, and unless one drinks at least FOUR glasses of milk per day, that the digestive process actually consumes more calcium than the body gets from the milk. Given that the science is constantly changing, it's hard to say what are the actual facts regarding milk. I do know that many experts are adamant that humans do not need cows milk.

May 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike

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