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3 myths about dairy-free foods

Calcium is important even when you're older, and milk can be a fine way to get it

Published: June 05, 2015 01:45 PM

Have you sworn off dairy? Maybe you think it will ease your stomach woes. Or, now that you're middle-aged, you assume your bones don't need as much. Or maybe you're just drawn to all the dairy-free options now on supermarket shelves, including dairy-free ice cream, yogurt, and coffee creamer. Should you join the crowd? Probably not. "Unless you have a medical reason to skip dairy, such as an allergy to milk protein, adults can benefit by eating some dairy every day," says Consumer Reports chief medical adviser Marvin M. Lipman, M.D.

Here we take a look at some common myths about milk and other dairy products.

Myth 1: After age 30 you don't need calcium for your bones

It's true that you reach peak bone mass by age 30, so getting calcium before that age is key, so you build as much healthy bone as you can. But calcium is still important. That's because after age 30 your bone mass begins to decrease, and not getting enough calcium in your diet speeds that loss. Adults age 19 to 50 need 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day, according to the National Institutes of Health. Women 50 and older and men 70 and older should aim for a daily dose of 1,200 mg.

Calcium is critical for many of the body’s basic functions, including regulating your heartbeat, says Victor Khabie, M.D. chief of sports medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York. “The bones are a storehouse for calcium and if you're not ingesting enough orally then the body will take calcium from your bones to keep the level of calcium in your blood normal.” And that can lead to osteoporosis, or brittle bones. The body also requires adequate protein and vitamin D to “remodel” bone, the process that keeps bone healthy.

Myth 2: Calcium from pills is as good as calcium from food

Getting your calcium from dairy products is a good idea for several reasons. First, to keep bones healthy you need calcium, protein, and vitamin D. Dairy products deliver all three in one tidy package. For example, three cups of fortified non-fat milk provides about 900 mg of calcium, 25g protein, and 350 IU of vitamin D.

To get a day’s calcium supply without dairy takes careful planning. For example, you could eat 8 ounces of cooked broccoli, 3 ounces of canned sardines (with the soft bones), 2 oranges, 8 ounces of frozen collard greens, and 8 ounces of frozen green soy beans. And some research even suggests that getting too much calcium from supplements may be bad for your heart.

If you don't like milk, "Try adding yogurt to your diet," says Maxine Siegel, Consumer Reports registered dietitian Maxine Siegel, "and if it contains live-active cultures you'll also get a dose of probiotics, which may have health benefits."

Find out the truth about high-protein, low-carb diets and whether organic milk is worth the money.

Myth 3: I have to give up all dairy because I'm lactose intolerant

If you’re forsaking dairy because eating it brings on diarrhea, abdominal pain, and flatulence, there’s a good chance you are lactose intolerant—you don’t produce enough lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose.

The problem is common. It affects 80 to 95 percent of Native Americans, 65 to 75 percent of African Americans, and 7 to 20 percent of Caucasians. Among Asians the rate can exceed 90 percent. But just because lactose intolerance is common, don't assume that you are. Instead, if you suspect the condition accounts for your stomach woes, ask your doctor to test for the problem with a simple blood or breath test.

And even if you are intolerant, that doesn't mean you have to give up dairy entirely. There's an array of lactose-free dairy products on store shelves. "Lactose-free milk, cheese and yogurt contains all the beneficial ingredients without the lactose," Siegel says.

The bottom line

Dairy foods have garnered a bad reputation in some circles, but according to our experts, that bad rap is based on myths rather than actual science. In addition to promoting bone health, research shows that low-fat milk drinkers have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. “Looking at the evidence, not only is milk not harmful, but for the average individual, milk is beneficial," says Robert Heaney, M.D, a calcium researcher at Creighton University in Omaha.

It's a good idea to limit whole milk and other full-fat dairy products that are high in saturated fat, which can put you at risk of heart disease. But unless you have a diagnosed medical reason to avoid it, low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese and yogurt deserves a place on your daily menu.

—Lauren Cooper


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