Milk and dairy campaigns have been running strong for decades, yet osteoporosis is still rising worldwide. So what is going on? Are we just ignoring the messages to consume enough dairy in our diets, or is something else to blame here?

For decades we have been conditioned to believe that dairy equals calcium and calcium equals strong bones. However a deeper and wider examination of things presents a completely different story of these grossly oversimplified connections. Early on in my research for example, I was fortunate enough to stumble on the big question: Why are the populations who consume the most dairy, also the ones with some of the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world?(1) And as it turns out, dairy is not the answer to our bone problems. In fact, dairy in the diet is actually part of the problem, not the solution.

At the root of our deteriorating bone problems are two main factors: our diets and lifestyles. In this article I will share with you about the former and specifically how high amounts of protein and sodium in the diet are two of the most serious contributing factors to poor bone health and increased risk of osteoporosis. Knowing this, when you consider what kind of diet is consumed by the majority in North America and similar parts of the world — heavily processed, refined and high in animal foods — it is easy to see why populations in these areas have the poor bone health they do. Hence today, more than ever, we need to take a step back from the paradigms we have been led to believe and seriously re-evaluate where our bone health really comes from.

“The myth that osteoporosis is caused by calcium deficiency was created to sell dairy products and calcium supplements. There’s no truth to it. American women are among the biggest consumers of calcium in the world, and they still have one of the highest levels of osteoporosis in the world. And eating even more dairy products and calcium supplements is not going to change that fact.”

Dr. John McDougall, The McDougall Program for Women (2000)

Quick Overview of Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a bone disease, where bones become thin and/or brittle. In the long term, it can lead to pain, frailty, fractures, breaks, immobility and premature death. It typically strikes people, women more than men, in their elderly years, and is today a growing concern for most world populations. It is important to point out here as well, that this is not a disease that impacted our ancestors. Rather, it is a man-made or lifestyle disease associated with our modern-day way of eating and living, which never needs to happen if we take a different approach to these two areas of our life.

The International Osteoporosis Foundation estimates that by the year 2020, over half of all Americans over 50 will have weak bones. Current estimates show that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men over 50, will suffer a fracture due to osteoporosis. For more details on osteoporosis and world statistics, check out the following osteoporosis fact sheet.

The highest hip fractures are seen in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and the US. Now recall what I said above, about the highest consuming dairy populations having the highest rates of osteoporosis. According to 2006 data from the University of Guelph, Finland, Sweden and Ireland, respectively take the world’s top 3 dairy consumption spots. Norway is in the top 5 and United States in the top 15 spots for this trend. Interestingly enough, the United States is the world’s largest producer of cow milk and takes the first spot by more than double compared to any other country.

Generally speaking the trend to consume more dairy products is seen in Northern or colder areas of the world. An interesting fact to keep in mind about all of this dairy consumption is that around three-quarters of the world has some degree of lactose intolerance and is consuming very little, if any dairy. These are also the countries who do not exhibit osteoporosis at rates seen in the dairy-consuming parts of the world.

What is troubling however, is that countries that were not previously tied to dairy as much, and had generally speaking low rates of osteoporosis are starting to exhibit the opposite trends. Countries like Asia, Latin America and parts of the Middle East are showing sharp increases in the rates of osteoporosis. While some of these cultures include dairy consumption as part of their regular diets, their resulting osteoporosis has been specifically linked to the Western-like lifestyles, which they have increasingly adopted. So what is it about the Western lifestyle that is currently to blame and has for decades now contributed to the ever increasing osteoporosis rates? The answer:

Top osteoporosis risk factors: A diet high in protein (specifically animal protein), fat, salt (lots of processed food), and sugar, along with a sedentary lifestyle.

Unfortunately we have increasingly adopted this way of eating and living since the early part of 20th century and have seen rates of chronic diseases, like osteoporosis, skyrocket. And sadly, instead of learning from our mistakes, developing countries are continuously aspiring to live like the “Western” world, picking up our bad diet and lifestyle habits, and consequently suffering from the same conditions as us, which were previously foreign to them.

So while all of the above factors are primarily responsible for our poor bone health, two of the most intricately connected to the status of our bone health are high protein and high sodium diets, which we will further discuss below.

High Sodium Diets

With the invention of the microwave, came the age of frozen food convenience. And with frozen and prepared meal convenience came the emergence of processed food. No matter what processed item you pick up, from crackers and breads to pasta sauces and soups, you can bet on one thing – it is going to be loaded with sodium.

Many of us are quick to connect high sodium diets with high blood pressure, and while this is true, it is not the intention of this article to cover that. What will come as a surprise to most people, however, is that high sodium diets are greatly responsible for pushing calcium out of our bodies. These are just two serious ways in which high sodium diets hurt our health, but there are actually many more.

How much salt do we eat?

It is estimated that in order to thrive we require as little as 115 to 500mg of sodium per day.(2) The current recommended sodium intake is around 1500 to 1600mg for many countries, where the upper safe limit is set at about 2300 or 2400mg. And yet despite these three ranges, most North Americans, and people living in similar areas of the world, consume between 3000mg to over 10,000mg of sodium per day! So do we have a high sodium problem? You bet! And we would be fooling ourselves if we thought that this type of dietary factor did not have huge implications where our health is concerned.

Where is all the salt coming from?

About 15% of the salt we eat daily comes from the salt shaker, while most of the rest, about 75%, comes from the processed food we eat.

The sodium and bone health connection.

Let us now examine the impacts of high sodium diets and how it impacts our bone health. Scientific literature says that for every 1000mg of sodium in our diets, we lose about 20-40mg of calcium from our body. In postmenopausal women, 500mg of sodium draws out about 10mg of calcium into the urine. (3)

All of the above wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that calcium is not the most easily absorbed mineral. We typically absorb about 15 to 20% of our dietary calcium. In other words if you get 100mg of calcium from a meal, you only keep about 20mg of it, and if you also had about 1000mg of sodium in that meal, then you just lost all that calcium, if not more. So not only did your bones not gain any calcium, your body may have also lost some too. This is all a condensed explanation of how sodium, calcium and our bone health interact, but despite its biochemical complexity, influenced by many other factors, you can quickly understand why it is important to focus your efforts on reducing the amount of sodium in your diet for optimal bone health.

High Protein Diets

Our obsession with protein began about 100 years ago and it is plagued by so much misinformation to this day. As soon as it was discovered, it was hyped up to be the nutrient of prime importance that would fix any nutritional deficiency. Boy were we wrong. Regardless, industries caught sight of a big financial opportunity and government subsidies went out to meat and dairy farmers readily throughout the 20th century, and do to this day. With strong financial support and opportunity for major profit, it is no surprise that marketing about protein, as it relates to animal foods, was strong and in turn strongly conditioned the population to understand protein in a very narrow and harmful way. As time went on the supplement and processed food industry jumped onto the protein bandwagon and drove it deeper into our cultures.

As a result, today we have a highly nutritionally misinformed population who thinks that there is somehow a shortage of protein in their diets and that the more protein the better. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fitness communities or whenever there is any mention of vegan/vegetarian diets. Most cultures around the world have become hooked on animal foods, and most people do not know how to function without them in their diet. The result is a high protein eating population, especially high in animal protein that is.

Ironically, protein is the nutrient we should be eating in the smallest amounts of all 3 macronutrients in our diet, yet one that most people continuously think they need or should have more of. The dangers of high protein diets have been widely documented for decades, but this information remains buried for the most part given the influence of the above mentioned industries, whose messages still speak the loudest and influence every sector of society. Aside from the serious liver and kidney damage and upset to our vital acid-alkaline balance, high protein diets can contribute to bone and muscle deterioration.

Recommended protein amounts have fluctuated throughout time, and are not necessarily uniformly accepted across the world or by all nutrition experts and researchers. Here is an overview of protein amounts for your consideration:

  • In 1985 the FAO/WHO/UNU set the adequate protein amount as 0.60g/kg of body weight per day, and the upper safe limit as 0.75g/kg of body weight per day.
  • In 2007 the FAO/WHO/UNU set the adequate protein amount as 0.66g/kg of body weight per day, and the upper safe limit as 0.83g/kg of body weight per day.
  • In North America the common recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g/kg of body weight per day.
  • Percentage-wise, it is commonly recommended that we consume 10 to 15% of our calories from protein. Leading-edge holistic science recommends about 10% for optimal health, where as the fitness industry and certain fad diets demand about 20% or more.

So who is right and what is the best amount of protein for us? Consider that human breast milk is about 6% of protein of total calories. So at a time that we undergo the most extreme and delicate growth of our life, this is what nature has deemed as “ideal” for human needs. Perhaps given this fact you can better appreciate why leading edge holistic experts, as opposed to mainstream ones, recommend about 10% or even less of protein for optimal human function. Our bodies are very well equipped to create most of the proteins and amino acids we need, if we only eat enough food for our needs from a basic variety of foods (these can be solely plant foods). Secondly, ALL whole foods, plant or animal, contain protein. In fact, all whole plant foods are excellent sources of protein, especially for human needs, providing us with more than enough protein and the right types of protein.

When you properly learn about how much protein you really need, you quickly realize that the amount is much smaller than most people imagine and so easy to get. Regardless if we are using the normal or upper limit values from above, a 110lb (50kg) person would need only 33 to 40g of protein a day, where as a 220lb (100kg) person would need about 66 to 80g of protein.

Unfortunately in our society, we are conditioned to think that protein is difficult to get if one does not consume any or enough animal foods, and in our erroneous belief that “more is better”, we are eating more protein than we need. In many cases double the protein or more! Given everything shared thus far, it would be naïve to think that this won’t have some kind of negative repercussions on our health.

Research has shown that for every gram of protein that we eat over 47g, we lose about 0.5mg of calcium via the urine. (3) This means that someone who eats 87g of protein, loses about 20mg of calcium. Increased calcium excretion increases the risk of kidney stones and can negatively impact bone building and maintenance. But that is not all. Outside of this scope, high protein diets are also associated with increased cancer and diabetes risks.

Finally, high protein diets, especially ones that are high in animal foods, are highly acid forming, which wears down the tissues and functions of our bodies. (This acid-alkaline balance guide will help you understand the basics, if this topic is new for you.) Calcium on the other hand, is an alkaline forming mineral, which has many functions including helping to buffer acids, and keep our overall internal state at a slightly alkaline level. Therefore, if calcium and other vital minerals are being used to balance out the high incoming acidity, they are unavailable for building new tissues like bones, or for other vital functions.

Knowing this, you can perhaps appreciate the irony of being told to eat dairy (an acid-forming food) for proper bone health. Never mind that it doesn’t even have a high bio-availability of calcium; only about 30% of the calcium in dairy is available for your body to absorb. Compare that to leafy greens and green vegetables, which are not only alkalizing, highly healing and protective, but also have a calcium bio-availability in the range of 40 to 60%.

Thanks to everything we know today, we cannot stay ignorant with claims about our grandparents or human ancestors drinking milk all their lives and being “just fine”. Given everything we know today, humans were far from fine and simply did what they needed to survive, including drinking the breast milk of another species intended for its own young. Add to that the fact that today’s milk and dairy products are some of the most unnatural, processed foods, which come from some of the most unhealthiest cows, and you can quickly appreciate why any modern dairy in the diet is a really bad idea.

Conclusion

If you want to support your body’s optimal bone density and maintain optimal bone health for life, I hope this article has helped you understand that you cannot consume a diet high in protein and/or sodium. In fact, the more processed foods and animal foods you have in your diet, the higher is your risk for all lifestyle diseases and premature death, not just osteoporosis. As time, human experience and quality research has shown the most healing and protective diet is a whole food, plant-based diet.

In addition to this, we must have adequate physical activity in our lifestyle, including regular walking and resistance training, like weight bearing exercises or yoga. Bones are built and maintained on a “use it or lose it” paradigm, so be sure to engage your body in physical activity daily. Having a smart health-conscious lifestyle, which includes the right food, movement and other necessary factors, will then not only protect your bones, but ensure optimal health, healing and prevention for your entire body, as well as your mental and emotional wellbeing.

References

  1. Data from 40 countries on hip fracture and dairy consumption.

  2. Recommended Dietary Allowances: 10th Edition - Water and Electrolytes

  3. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Vitamin D, and Fluoride.

Further Reading