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The dairy debate
How much calcium do we really need?

Photo by Matt Haas

April 2016

Long gone are the days of consumers having only a few beverage choices. For the most part, it used to be milk, coffee, water, orange juice and maybe one or two brands of soda. That was it. So it’s no wonder that with the increase in bottled water consumption and vast array of sports drinks, juices and sodas available, daily milk intake for Americans has dropped 50 percent since 1978, to little more than a half a cup.

America’s obsession with fat-free diets has left milk and other dairy products out in the cold with a certain segment of the public. Even the amount of actual calcium needed for the average person is now coming into question.

"There’s starting to be some debate over calcium — how much do we really need and what should be the sources?" says Dr. Julie Larsen, medical director for ProHealth Care’s weight-management services in Sussex. "Some studies show calcium may actually promote atherosclerotic heart disease by forming calcium plaque."

She says there is also debate as to whether milk actually helps people, especially in large quantities. "If you’re getting too much protein, it may actually weaken your bones," Larsen notes.

Then there’s the concern by some in the medical field that dairy is contributing to higher rates of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer. While Larsen doesn’t think the research is clear on this yet, she and others recommend that those who consume dairy choose organic products free from antibiotics and growth hormones, leading to a cleaner diet.

For those who are lactose intolerant, allergic to casein or whey proteins, or find themselves concerned about drinking too much milk, there is good news.

"The nice thing is that there are other sources of calcium besides milk so that people can get adequate minerals," says Betty Holloway, a clinical dietician with ProHealth Care. A good example of this is yogurt, without added sugar or artificial sweeteners. According to Holloway, it’s a great source of calcium.

Soy, rice, almond and coconut milks all fortified with vitamin D and calcium are great alternatives for those who want to avoid regular milk.

While many health experts agree that one to two servings of dairy per day is adequate, there are others who follow the lead of the USDA and think more is needed to maintain proper health.

"We support the dietary guidelines and the sound science behind the fact that most Americans are recommended to have three servings of dairy a day," says Laura Wilford, registered dietician and director of the Wisconsin Dairy Council.

Wilford’s been with the council for 30 years and focuses on outreach and education throughout the state. As to the importance of what she calls the "big three" — milk, cheese and yogurt — she admits that while milk consumption has decreased over the years, there has been an increase in consumption of other dairy products.

"Over the past year, we have seen a huge increase in the intake of cheese. In the past 25 years, cheese consumption has tripled," says Wilford. She has also seen increases in yogurt consumption over the years.

As for those who can tolerate moderate amounts of milk, there’s been a shift in thinking regarding fat content and the fact that for years people thought it was bad for them. New science has surfaced indicating that the fat in milk is not unhealthy for people and actually helps with the absorption of calcium and vitamin D.

"That’s why we’re also going back to considering fat as being a little healthier than we used to think," says Holloway.

Both she and Larsen recommend 1 or 2 percent milk for those who are able to consume it, and Wilford agrees. "For a long time, all we heard was drink skim, drink skim. But now we know that you can include 1 percent, 2 percent or even whole milk and work it out in your meal plan," adds Wilford.

Regardless of the number of choices out there, when it comes to beverages there’s no arguing that milk and dairy are important sources of calcium, potassium and vitamin D. In fact, these are three of the four nutrients Americans are most likely to be deficient in, according to research.

Experts agree. If people decide to reduce milk and dairy in their diet, they should be making healthy replacement choices. There doesn’t seem to be any debate on that. M



This story ran in the April 2016 issue of: