Dairy Free Diets – A Risk To Bone Health?
With the recent news from the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) warning that the current eating habits of the young are a ticking time bomb for their bones; dairy free diets have come under scrutiny once again.
The NOS released information about a study which revealed that 70% of 18-35 year olds had or are dieting. 20% of those adults had cut out or reduced dairy. The study also revealed that most were following a “clean eating” diet (a diet that has been booming particularly in the social media realm for the last few years (and potentially reaching its peak) and those under 25 were most likely to be following nutrition bloggers on social media.
This prompted concern over the health of these young adults’ bones in later life and sparked a conversation of whether dairy-free fad diets put the young at risk. Here we take a look at whether dairy is essential and whether it is safe to cut it out of your diet.
With so many different diets becoming increasingly common in the Western World, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of which are deemed to be healthy and which are risky. The rise of paleo and clean eating plans are among the most popular, but these are just two of many that involve removing dairy from the diet.
Of course, as interest in these lifestyles grows, more and more impressionable young people are adopting these changes, which some claim that doing so is creating a ticking time bomb of future musculoskeletal issues. Is this really the case, or just scaremongering from those with a vested interest?
Is Dairy Essential For Young people?
Calcium and Vitamin D are particularly important for young people as their bones continue to grow, and dairy is the easiest way to getting a child to consume these essential vitamins and minerals. Unless you have a rare toddler that screams for extra portions of broccoli at mealtimes, the chances are they'll have to get their fix through milk.
It's arguably a risky business to remove dairy completely from the diet until we reach the age of around 30, as at this point our bones begin to break down faster than they are able to rebuild. Dairy consumption – within moderation – in our younger years should ensure that we have enough calcium in the body's bank to ensure our bones are strong, healthy and unbrittle well into adulthood.
Age 9 & Up
Excessive calcium in the very young can be detrimental, but it really becomes essential from the age of around 9 right through adolescence and the teenage years. At this pivotal point of development, around 1,300mg of calcium per day is recommended – that’s the equivalent of two glasses of milk, a pot of yogurt and at least one cheese-inclusive meal.
Failure to meet these recommendations, even if you decide to obtain your calcium through alternative means such as vegetables of supplements, could have very detrimental effects later in life.
Less After Growing
It’s fine to calm down on the calcium a little after growth spurts are concluded (but, to re-iterate, it remains essential even if you decide to eliminate dairy from your diet – you’ll have to make friends with green vegetables to replace it), but it’s worth picking up the calcium intake once more when you reach middle age. From around 50 onward, the wear and tear our bones have experienced can be countered by a slightly higher intake up on calcium.
Why Cut Out Dairy Later In Life?
We've been told since we were children that dairy is essential to the development of our teeth and bones, but is it really necessary to include as part of our diets into adulthood? For all the benefits contained within thanks to the calcium, there are also health concerns that should not be ignored.
Excess Can Be Detrimental
While milk is often marketed as a method for combatting osteoporosis and other chronic musculoskeletal conditions, excessive amounts can be detrimental to the body. Dairy is loaded with acids, which can overload the delicate pH balance of the human body. Excessive consumption can actually increase the amount of acid contained within our system, leading to weakened bones as existing levels of calcium, magnesium, and potassium are pulled from the skeleton to restore neutrality.
Dairy products are also extremely difficult for the digestive system to break down, which surely plays into the fact that up to 3/4 of the world's population are lactose intolerant1. Dairy is hugely inflammatory, often leading to gas and bloating, while it has also been linked to Type 1 Diabetes2 and even, in some cases, cancer3.
Not For Human Consumption
There is also the fact that cow's milk is designed for consumption by calfs, not humans. Before milking, cows are often pumped full of bovine growth hormone to increase their output, which can cause an infection that is treated with antibiotics. You wouldn't help yourself to medication prescribed by a veterinarian, so can you honestly say that it's wise to consume these treatments by proxy? Especially when we think about the possibility of pesticides in the grass used to feed cattle.
The reality is, while calcium is important and dairy products contain a number of essential vitamins, these can be obtained in greater numbers from alternative sources – nuts like almonds, or superfood greens such as kale and spinach, chief among them. If dairy is unnecessary, and even potentially harmful, why the fuss over the recent craze of removing it from the diet? Is it just a case of the farming industry hiring extremely efficient PR representation, or do the risks of removing dairy outweigh even those of consuming it?
Is It Safe To Cut Dairy From My Diet Completely?
Well, yes – dairy isn’t actually essential, and in many respects it’s harmful. It’s what it contains that our bodies need to thrive.
Removing dairy from your diet may result in the loss of all kinds of good bacteria, known as probiotics. It's not the end of the world as these bacteria can be found in other foods such as pickles – and you may even find that sourcing these essential probiotics elsewhere actually helps your digestive tract4. However, you may be better served gradually phasing dairy out of your diet and replacing it steadily, as opposed to dropping it like a stone and leaving your body to suffer as a result.
Another thing that may surprise you is that dairy actually aids weight loss, as opposed to accelerating gain5. A typical dairy product, such as a slice of cheese, is loaded with proteins and naturally occurring fats. As a result, removing dairy from your diet may lead to some surprising hunger pangs. Again, these can be easily replaced by other food sources, but again, you risk sending your body into something approaching shock by making a drastic lifestyle change in one fell swoop.
How Can I Prevent Health Problems If I Cut Out Dairy?
If we remove dairy from our diet, we need to replace the calcium somehow. The Vegan Society are as good a source of information on where to find this from as any6, and the government have been good enough to provide a guide to recommended calcium intake based on age and gender7. As you'll see, a typical healthy adult should be seeking 1,000mg daily.
The key to replacing dairy is to ensure that we enjoy the benefits of doing so, without exposing ourselves to the risks that can also be associated. This means that it's essential to tuck into plenty of protein (though if you're a carnivore that will not be any kind of issue, as meat more than provides the minimum intake). Make sure you are getting plenty of calcium from some of the aforementioned sources - as we previously mentioned, green superfoods are the fastest, healthiest and arguably tastiest way of doing so.
Fifteen minutes of sun exposure a day will replace the Vitamin D that would ordinarily come from milk or cheese, or if you live in snowier climes, try cod liver oil. For even more benefits of Vitamin D, you can feast on oily fish such as tuna, mackerel, salmon etc. Egg yolks, orange juice and beef liver will also help your Vit D intake.
There are plenty of alternatives to popular dairy products available in any supermarket, and you can always start small. Soy, almond and coconut milks remove the risks associated with their dairy-based counterparts, while frozen yogurt is rapidly catching up with ice cream as a dessert treat of choice. Cheese may be a challenge, but there are an increasing number of vegan-friendly alternatives popping up, usually soy-based.
Like all things relating to a healthy diet, the risk and reward ratio of dairy consumption comes down to moderation. Calcium is undoubtedly important to the human body, especially in the young and elderly, but it doesn’t have to come from the traditional sources of cow’s milk and cheese.
If you decide to cut dairy from your daily intake, be sure to replace the calcium from elsewhere and ensure that you have fully educated yourself on the consequences of doing so. Ultimately it is a lifestyle choice, and not a medical necessity.
Before making that life-changing decision of eliminating dairy from your diet, do consider all the alternatives, and stop assuming that dairy is what makes you overweight or obese.Yes, dairy products can be calorie-laden, but the bulk of those calories come from unsaturated fat.
Take a look at all the low-fat versions of dairy products on the market – you will cut the calories and the fat, but still retain the protein, calcium and all the vitamins and minerals required for a balanced diet, healthy bones, teeth, nails and hair.