Osteoporosis Risk for Children who Don't Do Dairy?
Children who abstain from drinking cow’s milk have lower dietary intakes of calcium, lower bone mineral densities, and shorter stature than those who drink cow’s milk, according to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2002;76:675–80). While some may conclude from this study that children must drink milk in order to be healthy, a more appropriate conclusion might be that milk-avoiders should make a better effort to consume alternative sources of calcium and protein.
The American Dairy Association and Dairy Council have utilized aggressive print and television media campaigns, promoting the health benefits of cow’s milk consumption. However, drinking cow’s milk may be problematic for many Americans. Studies suggest that up to 50% of children and up to 75% of adults are lactose intolerant, which means they are unable to digest cow’s milk properly and can experience intestinal problems if they drink milk. Furthermore, allergy to dairy products is fairly common, and has been associated with problems such as asthma, ulcerative colitis, and kidney disease in children (nephrotic syndrome).
Another potential problem with cow’s milk, particularly whole milk, is its high saturated fat content which may be a predisposing factor for heart disease. In elderly men, dairy consumption has been associated with a higher risk of enlargement of the prostate. Despite the ads on television, studies have failed to conclusively show that drinking milk prevents osteoporosis
While everyone agrees that children must obtain adequate amounts of calcium in their diets, the issue of whether cow’s milk is the best source of calcium has been debated by scientists. Many foods besides dairy products contain substantial amounts of calcium. The two main nondairy sources of calcium in the United States are calcium-fortified soy products and calcium-fortified orange juice. Other foods containing significant amounts of calcium include dark, green leafy vegetables, such as kale, chard, mustard greens, goat’s milk products, almond butter, and walnuts, to name a few.
Considering the vast array of foods that contain calcium, it is possible for children to meet their daily requirement for calcium, even if they avoid consuming dairy products. The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium in the United States is 800 mg per day for children between one and ten years old. The RDA increases to 1,200 mg per day as the child enters puberty.
Calcium is an essential nutrient for bone development and contributes to the integrity and strength of bone. A well-balanced diet can provide more than adequate amounts of calcium for children, even if cow’s milk is eliminated because of intolerance or for other reasons. Consuming nondairy sources of calcium can presumably prevent conditions caused by low intakes of calcium, such as osteoporosis.
Parents of children who do not drink cow’s milk should carefully consider their child’s food choices and ensure that the child is eating calcium-rich foods. Supplementing with calcium may be necessary if the diet contains inadequate amounts. For more information on calcium-rich foods, consult a healthcare provider knowledgeable in nutrition.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of The Natural Pharmacist: Lowering Cholesterol (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice at New England Family Health Associates located in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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