As discussed in the FAQ response to “Where do you get your protein?”, the animal foods industries have maximized a marketing strategy known as USP (Unique Selling Point) to convince consumers that their products are the best and only reliable source of at least one key nutrient. In the case of the meat industry, the primary USP is protein. In the case of dairy products, it’s calcium.
With billions of dollars of funding (including taxpayer dollars) for marketing and promotion, the dairy industry has spent decades promoting their product as the ideal source of calcium, claiming that cow’s milk “does a body good” and is “nature’s perfect food”.
What the dairy industry neglects to tell you is that it doesn’t have a monopoly on calcium since, just like with the protein found in meat, the calcium in milk comes from the plants the cow ate. Once again, the animal is just the middleman for a nutrient that already exists abundantly in the plant kingdom. If it didn’t, large herbivores like elephants and rhinos wouldn’t have any bones to move around with their massive muscles (which they also build from plants).
While dairy products are touted as the only viable solution to getting enough calcium, there’s nothing special about the calcium in milk. The calcium found in fortified soy milk, for example, is absorbed just as effectively (1), and the calcium in vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and bok choy is 15-30% more absorbable than the calcium in cow’s milk (2).
As such, getting enough calcium from plants needn’t be an issue, as long as you familiarize yourself with the best sources.
But the biggest secret of the dairy industry isn’t that there are other and better sources of calcium, it’s that there are significant health risks associated with dairy consumption.
For starters, nearly 7 out of 10 people around the world are intolerant to lactose, the sugar found in milk, since most people lose the ability to digest milk after weaning (3). In the US, lactose intolerance affects roughly 95 percent of Asian Americans, 74 percent of Native Americans, 70 percent of African Americans, 53 percent of Mexican Americans, and 15 percent of Caucasians (4). Symptoms can be severe and include cramping, bloating, diarrhea, and excessive gas (5).
Dairy products are the top source of saturated fat in the US and other Western countries (6,7). Diets high in saturated fat increase risk of cardiovascular disease (8,9), type 2 diabetes (10), and Alzheimer’s disease (11). Regular consumption of dairy products has been linked to ovarian and prostate cancer (12).
All things considered, “Where do you get your calcium?” is a fair question. And it would seem the best answer is “From plants.”
(1) Tang AL, Walker KZ, Wilcox G, Strauss BJ, Ashton JF, Stojanovska L. Calcium absorption in Australian osteopenic post-menopausal women: an acute comparative study of fortified soymilk to cows’ milk. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2010;19(2):243-9.
(2) Weaver CM, Proulx WR, Heaney R. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):543S-8S.
(3) Storhaug CL, Fosse SK, Fadnes LT. Country, regional, and global estimates for lactose malabsorption in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017 Oct;2(10):738-46.
(4) Bertron P, Barnard ND, Mills M. Racial bias in federal nutrition policy, part I: The public health implications of variations in lactase persistence. J Natl Med Assoc. 1999 Mar;91(3):151-7.
(5) Lomer MC, Parkes GC, Sanderson JD. Review article: lactose intolerance in clinical practice–myths and realities. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2008 Jan;27(2):93-103.
(6) O’Neil CE, Keast DR, Fulgoni VL 3rd, Nicklas TA. Food sources of energy and nutrients among adults in the US: NHANES 2003–2006. Nutrients. 2012 Dec;4(12):2097-120.
(7) Keast DR, Fulgoni VL 3rd, Nicklas TA, O’Neil CE. Food sources of energy and nutrients among children in the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003–2006. Nutrients. 2013 Jan;5(1):283-301.
(8) Chen M, Li Y, Sun Q, Pan A, Manson JE, Rexrode KM, Willett WC, Rimm EB, Hu FB. Dairy fat and risk of cardiovascular disease in 3 cohorts of US adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016 Nov;104(5):1209-17.
(9) Li Y, Hruby A, Bernstein AM, Ley SH, Wang DD, Chiuve SE, Sampson L, Rexrode KM, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Hu FB. Saturated fat as compared with unsaturated fats and sources of carbohydrates in relation to risk of coronary heart disease: A prospective cohort study. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2015 Oct;66(14):1538-48.
(10) Wang L, Folsom AR, Zheng ZJ, Pankow JS, Eckfeldt JH; ARIC Study Investigators. Plasma fatty acid composition and incidence of diabetes in middle-aged adults: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Jul;78(1):91-8.
(11) Morris MC, Evans DA, Bienias JL, Tangney CC, Bennett DA, Aggarwal N, Schneider J, Wilson RS. Dietary fats and the risk of incident Alzheimer disease. Arch Neurol. 2003 Feb;60(2):194-200.
(12) Harvard School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. Calcium: What’s best for your bones and health?