The problem with eliminating dairy

Dairy products contain protein, calcium and other essential minerals

The results of a dietary survey by the National Osteoporosis Society were published today and reported by the BBC (find the article here). Among other things, they found that a fifth of under 25’s are cutting out or reducing dairy in their diet. While no particular reason was given for eliminating dairy, they did say that many in this age group are getting nutrition information online from bloggers and vloggers. And the vast majority of the current superstar health and diet bloggers recommend ditching dairy products.

This is a very worrying trend as dairy products are most people’s main source of calcium. Calcium is an essential mineral I’ve discussed before (see Protecting my bones with calcium). We lose calcium every day so we need to replace it every day. If we do not get enough calcium to replace our losses, then our bodies use the calcium stored in our bones, which can weaken them over time, leading to osteoporosis. In fact, after the age of 50, half of women and 20% of men develop osteoporosis.

Trouble is, only 30% of the calcium in our diet is absorbed by our bodies. So in order to replace those daily losses, the current NHS guidelines are 700mg of calcium per day for both men and women (though in the US the suggested intake is 1000mg). A 250mL glass of semi-skimmed milk contains 290mg of calcium, while a 30g serving of cheddar has about 200mg.  Soy milk is also fortified with calcium, so provides 250mg per 250mL glass. Of course, you can also get calcium from nuts, seeds, pulses and green leafy vegetables, but in far smaller amounts. For example, 24 almonds have 75mg of calcium and a cup of baked beans provides 125mg. So if you eliminate dairy from your diet, you need to eat quite carefully to make sure you’re getting enough.

What’s particularly concerning is that half of the 16-24 year olds in the survey said they had an intolerance to cow’s milk, despite only 24% having been diagnosed by their doctor. Unfortunately, we can only increase our bone mass up to the age of 20, maybe 25 if we’re lucky. After that, it’s a maintenance game. If children and young adults don’t get enough calcium when their bones are growing, they cannot “catch up” later in life.

I suspect many of those who give up dairy products do so in the mistaken belief that it will help them lose weight. The survey found that over 70% of 16-24 year olds had been on a diet in the past year. However, in a review of nine different population studies where thousands of people reported on their milk and dairy intake over several years, NONE showed that drinking milk led to weight gain. In fact, five of the studies showed eating dairy products regularly was associated with a lower body weight, or lower body fat (see reference below).

Dairy products can also be important sources of protein and easy to digest simple carbohydrates – perfect after a tough workout. The vast majority of protein powders contain whey protein isolated from cow’s milk. Part of my issue with giving up dairy without good cause is that it’s hard to find good substitutes. I read one article where a “nutritionist” recommended an elite athlete replace her daily yoghurt with coconut yoghurt. In other words, replace protein and carbohydrates with fat. For an elite athlete. Who is not lactose intolerant.

The bottom line is unless you have been diagnosed as lactose intolerant by your doctor, there is no good reason to give up dairy products, and several very good reasons to up your intake!


Study reference:

Louie JC, Flood VM, Hector DJ, Rangan AM, Gill TP. Dairy consumption and overweight and obesity: a systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Obesity Reviews. 2011; 12: e582-592

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