It’s the dairy industry’s most successful myth and you have to wonder how this simple marketing fib has managed to penetrate our education system all the way up to university level. Many people, including healthcare professionals, believe it and keep spreading this not-so-little white lie to new generations.
Perhaps it’s not such a mystery when you look at the mass of dairy industry education materials provided to schools and parents, bus sides and buildings plastered with adverts and TV commercials. As for medical doctors – they get no nutrition training other than a few lectures. Unless they take special interest or choose to educate themselves they may not know what constitutes a healthy diet any better than you do (and there’s a good chance you might know more than them).
Truth is, no one needs cows’ milk apart from calves. Human babies need their mother’s breast milk, or special formula milk if breastfeeding is not possible, but after weaning there is no need to consume milk at all – and certainly not of another species. Nature has made this clear by ensuring most of us cannot digest lactose (milk sugar) after the age of four. It is estimated that 75 per cent of adults worldwide cannot digest lactose and are therefore lactose-intolerant. It is because our bodies gradually stop producing the enzyme lactase, which makes lactose digestion possible.
Lactose intolerance causes symptoms such as bloating and stomach cramps, flatulence, diarrhoea, nausea and sometimes vomiting. Several studies also suggest that milk consumption can cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Cows’ milk certainly isn’t essential for children’s health and might be damaging in many ways. It is often a cause of eczema, recurring ear infections, asthma, digestive problems and can contribute to type 1 diabetes and high cholesterol levels and weight issues. It has also been linked to many types of cancer. And when it comes to bone health, dairy products are not the bonebuilding wonder foods the dairy industry wants us to believe.
So where do we get calcium from if not dairy products because that’s what the health claims say – you need milk for calcium. There are plenty of plant foods that contain calcium and you can get enough of it from these sources (see table below). Children actually absorb calcium better than adults so it’s even easier for them.However, we need much more than just calcium to produce strong bones. In the previous issue of Viva!life I described the importance of alkalising foods to healthy bones. That means eating lots of fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds (almonds, Brazil nuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, flaxseed), pulses (lentils, beans, soya) and wholegrains. These are not only healthy foods but are also important sources of many nutrients that bones need, such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamin K, vitamin C, beta carotene (vitamin A) and others.
Animal protein, found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, produces sulphuric acid due to its higher sulphur content compared to plant protein. The only way this acid can be neutralised quickly is by the body leaching calcium from the bones. This is a major problem because the lost calcium cannot be easily replaced and certainly not from calcium-rich dairy foods. They come with their own burden of animal protein and the large quantities of calcium they contain can’t be instantly absorbed and are excreted in urine. It is crucial to avoid acid-producing foods to build strong bones.
Many studies show that children whose diet is largely based on animal products have as much as 20 per cent less bone mass compared to children who eat mostly plant-based diets and exercise on a regular basis. The best you can do for your children to grow up big and strong is to feed them a healthy, plant-based diet and avoid acid-producing animal products and sugary foods, which also cause calcium loss. And they need to exercise. With bones it’s a case of use ‘em or lose ‘em!If your kids are resistant to eating some foods, below are a few tips to help you.
Tips to get ’em eating:
Chop fruit and vegetables in small, bite-size pieces.
Keep freshly cut vegetable sticks in the fridge.
Add dried fruit (unsweetened) and berries to your child’s cereal.
Always pack a small box of nuts and dried fruit in the lunchbox.
Always add vegetables to main dishes (at least two types of veg per dish).
Serve fresh cut vegetables on the side of the plate.
Add tahini (sesame paste) to sauces.
Make or buy smoothies rather than juice.
Switch from peanut to almond butter – healthier, a good calcium source and can be spread on thinly sliced apples or pears as well as bread.
Add beans and lentils to stews, soups (blend them if necessary).
Add to salads and use them puréed as sauce bases.
Serve pancakes with fresh fruit (bananas, strawberries) or savoury vegetable filling (eg spinach and tofu).
Soya yoghurt with chopped dried and fresh fruit is a great snack.
Avocados – a great source of energy – slice them for sandwiches or blend with beans or chickpeas into a spread.
Make fruit and veg visually attractive – arrange cut pieces in a fun shape and play with colours.
Lead by example – if your children see you eating the same foods, it’ll encourage them.
Let your child choose some fruit and veg in the shop.
Involve your child in meal preparation – get them interested in what they eat.
Read more about diet and healthy bones in our Break Free report.
Recommended calcium intake (mg/day)
0 to 12 months
Over 19 years
Over 19 years
Mg calcium/100g food
Chickpeas – boiled
Green beans – boiled
Lentils – boiled
Kidney beans – canned
Soya beans – boiled
510 (calcium-set; if not, the value is 150)
Broccoli – raw
56 (boiled – 40)
Cabbage – raw
Celery – raw
Kale – boiled
Okra – boiled
Spinach – boiled
Mixed herbs (dried)
Figs – dried
Tahini (sesame seed paste)