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Calcium from Dairy: Why is Dairy the Cornerstone of Calcium Rich Foods?


First let’s start by reviewing why our bodies need calcium. Calcium is an essential part of bones and teeth. This is why children are encouraged to consume calcium rich foods to build bone density while their bones are still growing. Adults are also encouraged to consume calcium rich foods to maintain bone density and prevent osteoporosis. Calcium also plays a role in blood clotting, helping muscles contract, and regulating normal heart rhythms.


So why dairy products? Well we could launch into the whole issue of the lobbyists in the agricultural industry encouraging congress to provide subsidies for dairy farmers and providing reimbursement for dairy serviced in schools… but this blog isn’t diving into those policy issues…


That leaves us with consumers. Consumers are a big part of what drives the food industry. For centuries, people have been drinking milk and making dairy products. We have become accustomed to the taste and for good reason. Milk and dairy products contain lactose, a form of sugar that is naturally occurring in dairy products. And sugar tastes good to us! (Want to know more about sugar in dairy, read our previous blog post “Naturally occurring vs. added sugar in dairy”).


So people find that dairy products taste good - I mean who doesn’t love cheese on their pizza or ice cream on a hot summer day? I can easily count consuming 3+ servings of dairy per day in my own diet (milk in my smoothie, cheese on my sandwich, yogurt as my afternoon snack, my afternoon decaf latte, I could go on…).


Dairy was and can be a big part of someone’s diet and it just so happens that it is also a nutrient dense food: protein, zinc, selenium, vitamin A, vitamin D, calcium, some b-vitamins (4 of them), phosphorus, etc. So of course we are going to encourage consumption of this food item! Yes, there are some pitfalls to dairy like with whole-fat dairy which has saturated fats which are known to increase the risk of heart disease.


But that doesn’t mean you HAVE TO consume it in order to get these nutrients. We promote the consumption of dairy because of convenience. It is often readily available in schools, you can always find a pint at gas stations, etc.


If you have an allergy to dairy products, or are lactose intolerant, of course you should avoid these products! If you have a philosophical reason to avoid animal products, then yes, skip this calcium rich option and choose one of the many other sources of calcium.


Bottom line:

There are many calcium rich foods. Dairy is often highlighted as the primary source of calcium because it tastes pleasant to many pallets. But you define your food philosophy - so if you choose to avoid dairy products - that’s cool! Just make sure to find other calcium rich sources.


Stay tuned for our last dairy month blog: Our Thoughts on Dairy Alternatives


Author: Leslie Ouellette-Todd, MS, RD, LD, MPH