Sunday, October 10, 2010

What About Calcium!?

One of the first questions concerned family and friends ask when they learn you have become vegan and now avoid all animal products, including dairy products is, “Where do you get your calcium?” Begin your dialog with them by assuming that the questioners have sincere interests in expanding their knowledge about good nutrition—rather than just them trying to prove your diet is deficient, and to justify their daily eating of Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Ice Cream and French brie ripened to perfection with a bottle of deliciously dry white wine.

Misinformation Is Promoted for Profits

We have all grown up educated about proper nutrition by the food industries, and the leader in “diet schooling” is the dairy industry. You might remember, at the center of these instructional campaigns has been “a teaching cow:” In my youth, living in the Mid-west, I learned about the importance of “milk for building strong bones” from Elsie, the cow. Lani Moo took over my eduction on “never out growing my need for milk” when I moved to Hawaii as a young doctor in the early 70s. In the mid 80s we settled in Northern California where Clo, the cow, provided dairy-friendly advice from billboards lining Highway 101. These cows are innocent participants in the enormous marketing efforts to sell products to correct a non-existent problem: dietary calcium deficiency.

One nutrient stands out as especially abundant in dairy foods: calcium. You might expect marketers to exploit this feature to sell cow’s milk to customers. To do this they had to create the fear that without their products, uniquely concentrated in calcium, people will develop disease—in this case fragile bones. In the USA, the variety of dairy industries combine into a greater than a $50 billion-a-year business, which raises and spends $206.5 million dollars annually to spread the myth that dairy foods are not only a healthy choice, but are also essential to avoid becoming sick.1 They write, “To meet calcium recommendations, increased consumption of calcium-rich foods such as milk and other dairy foods, often is necessary. Unfortunately, few Americans consume sufficient calcium, thereby increasing their risk for major chronic diseases such as osteoporosis.”2 And their fear mongering is working: Today, the average person consumes more than 593 pounds of dairy products annually, compared to 522 pounds in 1983.3

Calcium Is a Mineral Found in the Ground

Ask first, where does calcium come from? I mean originally? The source of all calcium is the soils of the earth. Animals do not eat ground—so how do they obtain this essential mineral? Plants absorb this basic element, present in watery solutions, through their roots, and then incorporate it into their various tissues—roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits. Animals then eat the plant parts to obtain calcium and all other essential minerals. Acting as the sole conduit, plants are loaded with minerals, in amounts sufficient to grow the skeletons of the largest animals that walk the earth, like the elephant, hippopotamus, giraffe, horse, and cow. Since these massive bones can be formed from the raw materials of plants, you can assume there is sufficient calcium in vegetable foods to grow the relatively small bones of a human being. Current observations and human history prove this: Most people who have ever walked this earth have grown their normal-sized adult skeletons without the aid of milk (other than mother’s milk during the first two years of life) and without concentrated calcium pill supplements.

Calcium Is a Necessary Nutrient

Calcium is essential for all living organisms—microbes, plants, and animals. The average adult body contains approximately 1 kg (2.2 pounds) of calcium. This represents the most abundant mineral in the human body and bones serve as an important storage depot for this calcium—99% of it is found in the skeleton in the form of calcium phosphate salts. In mammals, calcium plays a crucial role in processes ranging from the formation of the skeleton to the regulation of nervous tissue and blood vessel function. Calcium balance is maintained by the actions of three organ systems—gastrointestinal tract, bone, and kidney.

These three organs are precise and efficient at regulating the amount of calcium in our bodies. If our diet is relatively low in calcium, then the cells of the intestinal tract will act more vigorously and absorb a higher percentage of the calcium from the food. At the same time, the kidneys will act to conserve the body’s calcium. On the other hand, if we follow the messages of the calcium industries and begin consuming glassfuls of milk or handsful of supplements then the intestinal cells will act with their innate intelligence to block out the entrance of most of this concentrated calcium, and the kidneys will simultaneously eliminate any excess. If this were not the case, then the influx of excess calcium would by necessity be deposited in the soft tissues of the body—heart, kidneys, muscles, skin—and we would become sick and could die. Clearly, the body has many integrated mechanisms to assure that the proper balance of essential minerals is maintained—regardless of the choices we may make at the fast food window.

Human Calcium Needs Are Surprisingly Low

A recent study of Inuit (Eskimo) children found their diet, consisting largely of meat (which has almost no calcium), provided about 120 mg of calcium daily, but because of their physiologic adaptations these children were found to be healthy.4 As long ago as 1978 Paterson wrote in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, “Many official bodies give advice on desirable intakes of calcium but no clear evidence of a calcium deficiency disease in otherwise normal people has ever been given. In Western countries the usual calcium intake is of the order of 800-1000 mg/day; in many developing countries figures of 300-500 mg/day are found. There is no evidence that people with such a low intake have any problems with bones or teeth. It seems likely that normal people can adapt to have a normal calcium balance on calcium intakes as low as 150-200 mg/day and that this adaptation is sufficient even in pregnancy and lactation. Inappropriate concern about calcium intake may divert attention and resources from more important nutritional problems.”5 And that is exactly what the talented marketing people in the dairy industry have done with the help of friendly government officials in the USDA: they have placed the spotlight on the nutrient, calcium, which is easily obtained in sufficient amounts from almost any diet—and at the same time, taken the beam of truth off of the fat, cholesterol, and contamination—the life-threatening components of dairy foods. One of the ways this has been done is by sensationalizing rare cases of calcium deficiency in children on bizarre diets.


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