Protein and Calcium Myths

by Richard Schwartz, Ph.D.1

People are increasingly concerned about adopting healthier diets. However, many are prevented from necessary changes because of myths about certain nutrients. For example, it is the common wisdom that one should eat ample amounts of meat in order to get adequate protein and large amounts of dairy products in order to get adequate calcium to avoid osteoporosis.

But, please consider the following: Countries with the highest consumption of dairy products, such as the United States, Sweden, and Finland, also have the greatest incidence of female osteoporosis. Eskimos, who consume the highest amounts of calcium of any of the world’s people, have the highest number of cases of osteoporosis. Osteoporosis occurs relatively infrequently in China, even though they consume very little milk or other dairy products.

The reason is that people on meat- and dairy- based diets are getting far too much protein, generally 2 to 3 times the amount required, and when the excess protein is excreted, calcium and other minerals are drained from the body. A recent study showed that people getting 1400 milligrams per day of calcium along with about 150 grams of protein had a negative calcium balance of 65 units while people getting only 400 milligrams of calcium per day with only 50 grams of protein had a positive calcium balance of 31 units.

The main problem is the consumption of animal protein; studies have shown that protein from non-animal sources has health benefits. So the answer to preventing osteoporosis is not to consume a lot of dairy products, but to reduce animal protein consumption through a balanced, nutritious diet centered on the “New Four Food Groups”: fruits, vegetables (especially broccoli, a very calcium-rich food, without the negatives of animal products), grains, and legumes.

Researchers have found that the consumption of high-fat dairy products is a leading cause of atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes. While lower-fat dairy products represent an improvement, they are higher in protein, and this contributes to osteoporosis, kidney problems, and some forms of cancer. Dairy products are also the leading culprits in food allergies. Actually, milk is a wonderful product, but it was designed for rapid weight gain in calves. One might wonder if drinking milk is natural to human beings when we recognize that no other mammal on earth consumes the milk of another species or consumes it after a weaning period.

Many plant foods are good sources of calcium. Especially good sources are dark leafy greens (such as kale and mustard, collard, and turnip greens), broccoli, beans, dried figs, sunflower seeds, and calcium-fortified cereals and juices. Dairy products are good sources of calcium, but they also contain large amounts of fat and protein.

According to an American Dietary Association paper, vegans (who consume no animal products at all) can obtain the calcium they need from plant foods alone, and studies have shown that vegetarians can absorb and retain more calcium from foods and have lower rates of osteoporosis than non-vegetarians.

  1. You can find more writings of Dr. Schwartz on vegetarianism on the website. []

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