To Milk or Not to Milk

The more demand you put on your bones and muscles, the more your body will have a need to strengthen the bones, and the more calcium (and other minerals) will be absorbed into the bones. To maximize absorption of calcium you need to walk, exercise or lift weights every day as well as eating a variety of mineral-rich foods.

Best Dietary Sources of Calcium:

Calcium is best absorbed in its natural form – from whole foods that contain a natural combination of minerals (i.e.: Every food that contains calcium also contains magnesium, potassium and other minerals that aid in the absorption of calcium).

Animal sources:

Bone Broth (not the kind sold in stores which is primarily water), Canned fish with bones (salmon, tuna, sardines), mussels, oysters

Plant sources:

Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, green peas, almonds, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, molasses, citrus, figs, apricots, chia seeds.

Things that interfere with calcium absorption or make you lose calcium:

  1. Inadequate levels of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is absolutely essential to the body’s ability to absorb calcium. The best source of Vitamin D is exposure to the sun without a sunblock.
  2. Refined sugars. The excess of glucose that cannot be absorbed by the blood stream will bind to calcium in order to be eliminated in the urine.
  3. High sodium found in processed foods. Calcium helps the digestive system eliminate excess sodium but you also lose calcium in the process.
  4. Caffeine (the same process as with sugars and sodium)
  5. Anti-acid pills or formulas (even when fortified with calcium). These pills/formulas interfere with the stomach’s acid production. Stomach acid is essential for the process of breaking down the calcium before it enters the digestive tract. If it is not adequately broken down, it does not become bioavailable (it cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream and the bones).

For a deeper understanding:

Why is dairy not in the above list?

The majority of medical doctors are still heavily influenced by studies done in the 80s and 90s that were funded by the Dairy industry. Fortunately, Health Canada has done independent research and has removed dairy as a food group from their Food Guidelines.

Meanwhile, most doctors are still relying on outdated information, and they are not aware of the harmful effects of dairy consumption. They still believe that dairy is the best source of calcium. When they hear that someone doesn’t consume dairy, they assume that that person could be prone to a deficiency but they do not bother to test for a real deficiency (unless the patient is over 60 years old). If you ask them: “How do you explain the fact that populations (ie. The Okinawan in Japan or the Adventists in Loma Linda) that do not consume dairy have the longest health spans documented without any bone fractures?” They admit that this information was not part of their medical training.

A recent study on Milk and Health, published in the New England Journal of Medicine* makes the following key points:

  • Our body is able to regulate calcium absorption: when intake is high we absorb less, when intake is low we absorb more. It’s quite smart and gets what it needs!

  • Milk consumption augments growth (through hormones like IGF-1 present in the milk) and attained height. Tall stature is associated with higher risk of many cancers, hip fractures and pulmonary emboli. (This probably explains the fact that countries with high dairy consumption also have higher rates of hip fractures. Also, calcium supplements have not shown to increase our bone density or prevent bone fractures in the long run.)

  • Dairy consumption has been associated with greater risk of breast, endometrial and prostate cancer (probably due to high concentrations of IGF-1 and other hormones) – but a lower risk of colorectal cancer (probably due to high calcium content). However, colorectal cancer risk is also lowered by achieving a higher intake of fiber through fruits and vegetables.

  • Moving from full-fat dairy to low-fat dairy (where fat is replaced by sugar) lowers LDL-cholesterol, but also increases triglycerides and inflammatory markers.

  • The nutrients available in milk can be obtained from other – more beneficial – sources. Leaving out dairy creates more space for foods that are essential to our overall health: fruits & vegetables, lean protein & healthy fats.

* Walter C. Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., and David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D.

Milk and Health. New England Journal of Medicine: 2020;382:644-54. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra1903547

Dr. Anke Verlinden is an award-winning clinical haematologist at the University Hospital of Antwerp in Belgium. As a senior staff member, she specializes in treating patients with acute leukemia, guiding them through the process of stem cell transplantation. She initiated a project on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system function and quality of life of cancer patients in 2019 while also deepening her understanding of the role that food plays in our health and wellbeing.

Anke is the mother of three kids, one of whom was born with severe heart disease. This, combined with the increasing number of questions from patients on the possible effects of nutrition and lifestyle on their healing process, gave rise to several years of study and experimentation in areas that are not covered in medical school, plus a nutrition science degree from Stanford Medical School and a certification in Functional Medicine. She is now also a WILDFIT certified coach as part of her effort to help patients recover better and more quickly from cancer treatment.