As I reeled under the news of my low bone density, I grappled with guilt: If only I’d drunk more milk. Now, I used to have some each day, and during my pregnancies I meticulously counted four glasses a day, without fail. Cheese and unsweetened live yogurt have always been favourite foods, too. Yet, I’d internalised the media message: weak bones = too little milk, so on news of my osteoporosis I concluded I just hadn’t done enough. My fault.
But then I discovered a confusing piece of news: countries with the highest dairy consumption also have the most osteoporosis! Yes, despite milk’s legendary calcium content, those who drink the most have the weakest bones. So what’s with that???
Our bodies are about 1-2% calcium, mostly stored in our bones and teeth. Milk contains lots of calcium, and we can absorb about 32% of the calcium from dairy products, which is fairly good. As it turns out, though, our bones need more than just calcium. For one, they must have magnesium; too little of this mineral alters the way the body metabolizes calcium, and the hormones that regulate calcium. But calcium and magnesium compete for the same absorption channels in the body, so too much of one will lead to a deficiency of the other; with our dairy-rich western diet, that loser is invariably magnesium, already in short supply. Magnesium’s deficiency will keep the body from using the calcium that shut it out in the first place!
Another major problem concerns the acid-base balance inside us. We’ve all heard of the problems of acid rain: if precipitation is too acidic – usually from industrial waste released into the air – when it hits the ground it leaches minerals out of the rock. Scientists have called this “osteoporosis of the lakes”, because it is so similar to a process in the body that can leach minerals out of our bones. In our bodies, this acid/base (pH) balance is affected by the foods we eat. I’ll explain more about this later, as it’s a very big topic. But in short, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds leave an alkaline residue in the body, while meat, grains, and dairy products acidify the body. In this delicate balance, the typical western diet leaves us very vulnerable.
So in response to my diagnosis, I have reduced my milk consumption, reduced grain intake, and increased magnesium sources, such as nuts.
Who ever convinced us to entrust a single food group with the health of our bones in the first place? I haven’t uncovered the definitive answer to that, but I can guess it’s someone who benefits from the dairy industry’s success. It certainly isn’t the consumers.