Milk- An Udder Mistake?

We’re told to drink cow’s milk to build stronger bones, while being  bombarded with “Got milk?” commercials, posters, and sound-bytes supporting dairy in our diet. However, why milk is needed may not be entirely clear. Is milk really crucial to our bone health? Let’s talk about it.

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Some of us may remember the food pyramid, created in 1992 by the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, displaying how many servings of each food group are needed to be healthy and strong. 

As it pertains to the dairy section, we were told that each day we should consume 2-3 servings of dairy products, all of which includes milk and foods derived from it. As of 2011, the USDA has opted to replace this reference with a food plate to provide an updated look to their food policy promotion.

Milk serves as an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D which are essential micronutrients that work together for the development and maintenance of strong bones and teeth, while also supporting a functional immune system to fight infection and disease.

According to the United States Food and Nutrition Board (FNB), the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1,000 mg/day with older, post-menopausal women recommended to take upwards of 1200mg/day; regarding vitamin D intake, the RDA ranges between 10 mcg and 20 mcg per day, depending on the age group.

(Currently, the FDA is implementing plans for updating nutrition labels pertaining to units of conversion by July 1, 2021, and as an example, vitamin D’s International units (IU) are being converted to micrograms (mcg). Until then, you can use this calculator for a variety of conversion purposes, to avoid confusion.)

USDA Food Plate, 2011

Of note, very few foods naturally contain substantial vitamin D, thus requiring supplementation of our food supply with this nutrient to reach our daily recommendations. For example, 1 cup of raw cow’s milk contains .03 mcg – .20 mcg (.3% – 2% daily value!) of vitamin D. As a result, since the 1930s milk in the U.S. has been supplemented with 2.5mcg of vitamin D per cup of milk (25% of daily recommendation). Calcium, on the other hand, is a naturally occurring in cow’s milk, providing 300mg or 30% of the daily recommendation. 

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All things considered, it seems to make sense that we be encouraged by our food policy entities to obtain our nutritional requirements through the easiest, most supplemented routes possible. Yet, studies have shown there are still shortcomings in nutrient acquisition of calcium and vitamin D. Well, there seem to be underlying reasons behind the great disparities in United States’ dairy consumption between demographics, which we allude to next. 

The primary deterrent of almost all non-european ethnic groups consuming dairy is a condition termed lactose intolerance. This is due to a deficiency or absence of an enzyme called lactase, which allows for the digestion of products containing the sugar lactose. Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include abdominal discomfort, flatulence (gas), diarrhea, and nausea. Contrary to popular belief, lactose intolerance is not an exception to the rule. As a matter of fact, most adolescent and adult human beings are lactose intolerant to some degree, and after observing the table included in this article, you will realize the individuals most amenable to consuming dairy products over their lifetime are those of European descent. 

Research has been done to explore whether the discomfort of dairy intake for lactose intolerant individuals can be alleviated by consistent consumption. One study, for example, shows that through daily consumption of lactose-containing products over the course of three weeks, it appears that symptoms and measured lactose intolerance did not worsen over time; these results were consistent with previous studies. However, considering the reality that people of all ages consume dairy for years on end, a longer-term study may be necessary to see if this study’s findings hold true, or if other physiological responses arise.  

So, is it really necessary to force-feed dairy to people that naturally and biologically reject it? A growing number of specialists believe the answer is no, and the research to backup that rebuttal is starting to pile up. Be sure to check out our follow-up article which will dive deeper into the research behind propositions to overhaul current U.S. food recommendations, and why dairy as a universal, life-long source of calcium and vitamin D, may be a big mistake. 

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Lactose Intolerance Prevalence by Demographic
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In the meantime, as the debate continues over whether dairy should be as heavily promoted, here are some non-dairy alternatives to obtain your current daily requirements of vitamin D and calcium:     

Vitamin D

* Fish

* Orange juice with fortified vitamin D

* Mushroom

* Fortified almond milk


* Leafy greens (kale, spinach, collard greens)

* Seeds (sesame, flax seeds)

* Broccoli

* Beans

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