Reconsidering Calcium

Rather than relying on milk, we should get calcium from a variety of sources.

| December 2005/January 2006

You've seen the advertisements celebrities and public figures from all walks of life, each sporting a gleaming white milk mustache. The ads are supposed to make you aware of the dangers of not getting enough calcium, while urging you to drink three glasses of milk a day.

I hope you can resist the allure of this slick but misleading campaign, sponsored by the U.S. dairy industry. There's no question that calcium is an essential part of a healthy diet, but other major questions have yet to be answered, among them the question of how much calcium we really need every day.

In the United States, the official current recommended intakes are 1,000 milligrams a day for ages 19 to 50, and 1,200 milligrams a day for ages 50 and older. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the new U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid say we should get much of that calcium from three daily servings of milk, cheese, yogurt or other dairy products. However, there's no solid evidence that merely increasing the amount of milk in your diet will protect you from breaking a hip or crushing a backbone in later years.

Milk is clearly the most efficient way to get calcium from food, since it delivers about 300 milligrams per 8-ounce glass. Few other foods come close to packing in that much calcium. But milk delivers more than just calcium, and some of its other components such as extra calories, saturated fat and the sugar known as galactose aren't necessarily good for you.

The main reason for all the concern about too little calcium is the frightful prospect of osteoporosis, the gradual and insidious loss of bone that often comes with old age. Each year, osteoporosis leads to more than 1.5 million fractures, including 300,000 broken hips. Osteoporosis is usually portrayed as a women's disease, but it also affects men. Men enter adulthood with stronger, denser bones than women, and they never face the sudden, bone-draining loss of estrogen that occurs with menopause. This gives them a five- to 10-year hedge against osteoporosis over women, but not lifetime protection. Unfortunately, there's little proof that just boosting your calcium intake to the high levels that are currently recommended will prevent fractures. And all the high-profile attention given to calcium is distracting us from strategies that really work such as exercise, medications and vitamins and, for women, hormone replacement therapy.

Dairy products shouldn't occupy the prominent place that they do in the U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid, and they shouldn't be the centerpiece of the national strategy to prevent osteoporosis. Instead, the evidence shows that dietary calcium should come from a variety of sources and, if more calcium is really needed, from cheap, no-calorie, easy-to-take supplements. Consider dairy products as an optional part of a healthy diet and have them in moderation, if at all.

1/18/2008 1:22:35 PM

I wish this article would have said what other foods the author thought would be a safe alternative for folks to get their calcium from. Using the words "variety of sources" is just so ambiguous and uninformative. I am also curious as to where the author got their information on the calcium tests.

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