Being a vegan, one of the first questions I am asked is, “Where do you get your calcium?”. There has been this fallacy that you must consume dairy to achieve optimal health. This was and still is instilled in us by commercials touting “Milk is for Building Strong Bones” or “Milk-It Does a Body Good”.
With the rise of people turning to being a vegan, the dairy industry has felt pressure from scientists and nutritional experts showing the detrimental effects of dairy through various studies. That is why many people are now looking at alternatives to dairy in the form of plant-based products.
Dairy products from cows contain many unnatural hormones different from humans. There are significant amounts of estrogen and progesterone found in cow’s milk and the hormones given by dairy producers to continually have cows pregnant so they may produce milk even further increases this. One study has shown adults and children who consumed cow’s milk had a significant increase in estrogen and progesterone in their urine concentration. Males also had shown a significant decrease in testosterone levels and production.1
The incidence of hip fractures in the U.S. is very high compared to other countries but our intake of dairy is one of the highest also.2 There seems to be a significant correlation of countries with low dairy consumption and low incidence of hip fractures. This raises the question “how can dairy lead to an actual increase in bone fractures”?
One mechanism that has been looked at and studied is the idea of a high animal protein content of dairy acting to increase the acidity in your blood.3 The protein contains high amounts of sulfur-containing amino acids which will promote an acidic environment. In turn, the body tries to balance the acidity by leeching calcium from the bones due their alkaline properties. This then causes bones to become brittle and less weight bearing.
There is no disease that has been distinguished due to low calcium levels in natural diets. So the real question is “can one get enough calcium from a plant-based diet”?
I believe a calcium deficiency is non-existent following a natural plant-based diet. This is due to calcium being a natural mineral found in our soil and ground. Plants and vegetation absorb the calcium like a sponge and thus you use this for feeding. Animals, such as cows, graze strictly on grass full of calcium and that is why they have such a high propensity to furnish calcium.
You can also look at the two most powerful animals in the kingdom, silver-back gorillas and elephants, and see that their diet as a vegan gives them tremendous strength and size with no calcium deficiencies.
Absorption is key to you getting enough calcium and not how much you ingest. In fact, one cup of milk contains 300 mg of calcium but only 30%, 90 mg, is actually absorbed.4 Vegetables, such as one to two cups of spinach and kale, contain the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk but have a greater absorbability at 50-60%.
Some also believe that by taking calcium supplements you may get your adequate intake of calcium without eating fruits or vegetables but researchers have found the benefit does not outweigh the risk. Many studies have concluded users of calcium supplements had an increased risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease than non-users.
Because it is virtually impossible to be calcium deficient, you must be educated on the foods you consume. Dairy products are proven to be associated with proliferating cancer cells and the fat in milk is not a healthy fat. Hormones from the cows are foreign to our body also. We are the only specie that consumes another species milk and we haven’t even been doing this our entire existence.
Fortunately, there are a number of excellent alternatives to milk. Back in the day there was only powdered milk but now if you go to Whole Foods or even Walmart you may find rice, soy, hemp, coconut, almond, cashew, and walnut milk.
All have a different texture and taste so if you are used to skim milk then rice milk is probably the best. If you like a thicker milk with no taste, then almond milk is probably the best. Whichever your preference, there has never been an easier time to switch to a plant-based milk and avoid dairy.
- Maruyama K, Oshima T, Ohyama K. Exposure to exogenous estrogen through intake of commercial milk produced from pregnant cows. Pediatr Int. 2010;52(1):33-8.
- International Osteoporosis Foundation. Facts and statistics. https://www.iofbonehealth.org/facts-statistics. Accessed September 23, 2016.
- Barzel US, Massey Lk. Excess dietary protein can adversely affect bone. J Nutr. 1998;128(6):1051-3.
- R Oliveira. Getting clarity about calcium. Forks Over Knives Web site. http://www.forksoverknives.com/milk-myth-why-you-dont-need-dairy-for-calcium/. Published May 21, 2015. Accessed September 24, 2016.