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Boning up

on calcium!
Dr Justine Butler
demolishes the
enduring myth that
you need cow’s milk
for healthy bones!
hen I was in my early twenties I

W had a very slim friend who


seemed to survive on just
coffee and cigarettes. Oh yes, and her
daily pint of cow’s milk.This, she told
me, would ensure she kept her teeth
in her old age.Twenty years on and we
are still plagued by the myth that
cow’s milk is essential for strong,
healthy bones and teeth.

What is the magic component of cow’s


milk that makes us think if we don’t
drink it our teeth will crumble and our
spines collapse? Calcium - that’s what it
is! But is dairy food really the best
source of this essential nutrient? Milk
consumption in the UK has been in
decline for 30 years now and we haven’t
all lost our teeth nor seen our bones
disintegrate - so what’s the big deal and
how is this ‘calcium gap’ being filled? Vitamin D aids calcium absorption and help prevent skin cancer.Vitamin D is
helps to keep it in the body.You also important for avoiding heart
Calcium is a mineral - a very mostly get it through exposing the disease, breast, bowel and prostate
important one, along with others the skin to sunlight and from fortified cancers, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and
body needs to function efficiently, margarines. Fair-skinned adults need some other chronic conditions. Sunlight
including magnesium, phosphorus, about 15 minutes two to three times a and vitamin D, it seems, are more
sodium, potassium and zinc. Calcium is week. Face and arms are enough and important than previously thought.
the fifth most abundant mineral on the you are only likely to be vitamin D
earth’s crust and the most abundant in deficient in the UK if you get little Vitamin D is so important that
the human body, accounting for around exposure all the year round (1). without it, calcium deficiency is likely
two per cent of total body weight. It to be the result even if you eat plenty
plays an important structural role in Worryingly, there have been some of the stuff.The consequences are
maintaining bone health and strength - recent cases of vitamin D deficiency (2) extremely serious, resulting in rickets
in fact, around 99 per cent of the and campaigns to get people to cover- or osteomalacia - softening of the
calcium we eat is deposited in the up and use sunscreens to avoid bones. A more common problem is
bones and teeth.The other one per ultraviolet exposure may be osteoporosis, or porous bones.
cent is responsible for vital functions responsible.The Government states
that regulate muscle contraction, that we should expose ourselves to the Bones are made of a thick outer shell and
heartbeat, blood clotting and the sun for ten to fifteen minutes and then a strong inner mesh filled with a protein
nervous system. apply sun block of at least factor 15 to called collagen, calcium salts and other

veggiehealth
boning up on calcium
minerals. When calcium is lost, bones products at all, have a low calcium intake Looking solely at calcium intake and
become fragile or brittle and can break from vegetable sources - and typically not at losses tells only half the story
easily. Osteoporosis is sometimes called have up to 10 children each - yet and while a vegan’s intake might be
the silent disease as there are often no osteoporosis is virtually unknown (8). less than a dairy eater’s, their losses
symptoms until a fracture occurs. One in are likely to be much lower. In fact,
three women and one in 12 men in the Investigator Anne Karpf found that most there are no scientific reports of
UK will have osteoporosis after the age Chinese people obtain their calcium calcium deficiency in adult vegans.
of 50 (3).The Government’s current from vegetables yet osteoporosis is rare
recommendation to avoid this is 700 mg here also, despite an average life Most of what Inuits (Eskimos) eat is made
of calcium a day for adults (4). expectancy of 70.The reason for the up of animal protein.They also potentially
West’s poorer showing, she believes, is have one of the highest calcium intakes in
So how do you get it? There’s very little connected to too many high-protein the world - up to 2,500 mg a day -
in meat so meat eaters and vegetarians animal foods such as meat, eggs and depending on whether or not they eat
tend to rely on cow’s milk and milk dairy foods (9).The China and other whole fish, bones and all. Despite this,
products - and the idea that cow’s milk studies support this (see page 17). they have a higher rate of osteoporosis
is the best source of calcium is deeply than even white Americans, have lower
entrenched in the British psyche.The The problem isn’t lack of calcium but bone mineral content and bone loss
Government sponsors both the dairy the fact that we lose too much of what begins earlier in life (14, 15, 16).Animal
industry and the Milk Development we already have.The discovery of protein is again the guilty party.
Council, both of which encourage 18th-century human bones under a
everyone to consume endless dairy London church provides a clue.They Vegans, on the other hand, obtain all
products. Cow’s milk is also promoted showed that modern women lose far their calcium from plant sources - tofu
in primary schools and there’s a more calcium than our ancestors (10). (soya bean curd), molasses, oats, dark
campaign to reintroduce free school Different lifestyles, less physical green leafy vegetables, pulses, dried
milk. Recently, milk bars have been activity and diet may all play a part fruits, tahini (sesame seed paste), nuts
opening in secondary schools. and evidence suggests that physical and seeds. But what really counts is how
activity is one of the key factors in easily the calcium is absorbed. Calcium
New research challenges these ideas. A reducing osteoporosis risk. in milk isn’t as readily absorbed as that
recent review of 58 studies on in dark green leafy vegetables
milk came to the conclusion (17), spinach being something of
that there’s little evidence to an exception because it contains
support encouraging oxalate, which hinders absorption
adolescents to drink any (5). A (18). Grains, nuts and seeds
15-year investigation into contain phytate, thought to slow
whether low calcium intake is a absorption but their influence is
risk factor for hip fractures in now seen as minimal (19).
older people found that cutting
back on dairy didn’t increase the Other obvious ways to improve
risk and that physical activity bones are not smoking,
provided better protection (6). moderate use of alcohol, cutting
down on tea and coffee (caffeine
Alarmingly, osteoporosis has been The evidence is also growing that slows down absorption), avoiding salt,
diagnosed in people as young as 20 animal protein leads to calcium loss ensuring exposure to sunlight and
and there’s a big campaign to get them from bones and contributes to the eating vitamin D fortified foods such
drinking milk. However, when the risk of fractures (11, 12, 13). Animal as soya milk and margarine. And lastly,
bone density of 80 young women was protein contains more sulphur-rich take physical exercise - very, very
monitored over a 10-year period, amino acids than plant protein. These important. Use ‘em or lose ‘em!
again it showed that exercise was more increase blood acidity and calcium is
important than the amount of calcium drawn from the bones to neutralise Dr Justine Butler, PhD Plant Molecular
they ate (7). it. The evidence is that a plant-based Biology, BSc (Hons) Biochemistry &
diet free of animal products - a vegan Molecular Biology, Dip. Nutrition
American women are among the biggest diet - doesn’t produce these losses.
consumers of calcium in the world yet The bonus is that a diet made up A list of references can be obtained from
they have one of the highest levels of largely of fruit and vegetables VVF, 8 York Court, Wilder Street, Bristol BS2 8QH.
osteoporosis.African Bantu women, on provides plenty of potassium, which Please send an SAE marked ‘VH Calcium References’.
the other hand, eat almost no dairy also reduces calcium loss.

Reprinted from Veggiehealth, the magazine of the Vegetarian & Vegan Foundation
Go to www.vegetarian.org.uk to subscribe