The fact that milk is an excellent source of calcium is not exactly headline news but does it mean we all need to include it in our diets? And what happens if we choose not to? Those in the pro-milk camp may suggest that without dairy, we are at increased risk of bone loss and conditions such as osteoporosis. They may also point toward studies which indicate a possible protective effect of milk consumption against colon cancer. In the opposing camp, there are those who suggest increased milk intake does not lead to improved bone density. And they may highlight some good reasons not to consume dairy; from lactose intolerance to possible increased risk of prostate cancer and ovarian cancer.
So, what is the truth about dairy? Do we need to include it in our diet or not? Here at Penny Brohn, we see many clients who feel confused about dairy and indeed, for good reason, because it is a hotly debated topic. Our advice is that the decision whether to include dairy in your diet or not is a personal one, which should be made based on your own dietary preferences, the type of cancer you have and whether you have an intolerance to dairy or not. No matter what your view on dairy it is important to know that you CAN get enough calcium and other nutrients, without including dairy in your diet. So, here’s what you need to know to implement a healthy, balanced, dairy free diet.
One of the best ways to obtain calcium on a dairy free diet is to include dark leafy green vegetables on a daily basis. Kale is an exceptionally rich source of calcium, along parsley and seaweeds. Other dark green vegetables are also rich in calcium; broccoli, brussels sprouts, dark green lettuce, collard greens, chard, rocket, bok choi and pak choi.
Spinach, although high in calcium is rich in oxalic acid which can bind to the calcium, reducing its bioavailability and absorption. Cooking the spinach, either by lightly pan-frying or steaming will reduce the effect of the oxalic acid to some extent.
So, by all means eat spinach, but don’t rely on raw spinach as your main source of calcium! Leafy greens are also a rich source of vitamin K, another essential but lesser known nutrient for bone health.
Other foods rich in calcium and other nutrients required for healthy bones include oily fish with bones (think tinned sardines and tinned salmon); nuts and seeds – in particular, sesame seeds/tahini; fruits including figs, oranges, dates, prunes and apricots; blackstrap molasses, oatbran and oats. Finally, beans and pulses, such as lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, soy and tofu. By eating a broad range of these foods and including leafy greens on a daily basis, you will be obtaining plenty of calcium!
Dairy produce is also an important source of high quality protein. So, if you are considering excluding it from your diet, be sure to include sufficient protein from other sources. You should aim for roughly a handful of protein rich food with each meal. This can include meat, fish, nuts, seeds and pulses and eggs. If you are vegan, be sure to include nuts/seeds as well as pulses and grains on a daily basis, to ensure you obtain adequate levels of good quality protein.
Finally, an article on calcium is not complete without mentioning Vitamin D! Low vitamin D levels in the body can impair absorption of calcium from the intestines. Think sunlight! In the summer, aim for 15-20 mins of daily exposure in hot sun and expose your arms and legs as a minimum. Alternatively, and during the winter months, take 1000-2000iu vitamin D per day to maintain healthy vitamin D levels.
So in summary, eating a whole food diet, with plenty of leafy greens and a little, regular sun exposure throughout the summer is an effective way to ensure you obtain adequate calcium in your diet.