As NH21 Weekly scours global news outlets for ‘current events’ in the world of health; it finds itself consistently alarmed by the inconsistencies that appear in the media, and wonders why the headlines rarely match up with the content.

Catching the eye this week, was a BBC Health piece entitled Dairy-free diets warning over risk to bone health” in which a survey conducted by the National Osteoporosis Society apparently warns that hip-young ‘free-from’ eaters are avoiding dairy, and consequently “putting their health at risk by following eating fads.” (1)

According to the article (but not necessarily the survey) milk and dairy are important sources of calcium for strong bones, and that by avoiding them in our youth, we increase the risk of developing osteoporosis in later life.

This simplistic concept is typical of the dogma that surrounds ‘official’ guidelines on dietary health. To suggest that bovine derived calcium is the best way to ensure bone health in old age is grossly outdated and frankly absurd.

THEM BONES

The skeletal system, as a collection of some 206 interconnected bones, forms the framework upon which our bodies attach their muscles. It is within the bones that blood, the substance that carries oxygen around the body and delivers nutrients to the cells, is produced.

Bones also act as a reservoir for minerals; those naturally occurring earth elements required for a multitude of biological functions, yet found lacking en masse in the convenience foods and confectionaries that form the bulk of the standard western diet.

The individual bone cell is called an osteocyte; however, being part of bone tissue it is rarely found in isolation. Osteocytes accumulate to form units of bone called osteons, that, working in unison, contain all the specialized elements needed by each section of bone; including a matrix of minerals and collagen fibres, a central canal containing blood vessels and nerves, and a network of microscopic passageways through which the osteocytes receive nutrients and remove their own metabolic waste.

OSTEOGENESIS

When a male sperm fuses with a female egg, an individual zygote is formed. This one cell, containing a full set of chromosomes, begins to replicate itself, producing the numerous as-yet unspecialized mesenchyme cells of the early embryo. In-utero development sees mesenchyme accumulate and condense into specialized structures, including the jelly-like cartilage that will eventually mature into bone.

In a dynamic process that continues from conception, throughout childhood, and up until we are fully grown adults; a pair of special bone-constructing cells work symbiotically to both build, and breakdown, bone.

Osteoblasts are tasked with hardening the bones, packing on weight and strength from within-out. At the same moment osteoclasts work to breakdown and reabsorb older cells, ensuring that the inner bone remains gel-like and porous. In effect we see the bones eating themselves to ensure that whilst they remain as strong and possible, they do not become too heavy for us to carry around.

Additionally, this process maintains homeostasis of calcium levels in the blood. As a vital component of human health, calcium is needed for blood clotting, as well as nerve and muscle function; and it needs to flow freely around arteries and veins in order to act with and upon each cell.

As with all minerals, the composition of calcium in the blood is finely calibrated; we can have neither too much, nor too little, at any one time; excess leading to conditions such as hypercalcemia (causing muscle weakness and irregular heartbeat), whilst depleted reserves encourage the progression of disorders such as osteoporosis.

Thankfully we have naturally occurring chemical hormones to regulate this for us. When we have too much calcium in the blood, osteoblasts absorb the excess, packing it back into the bones; when we have too little, osteoclasts break down bone and release the stored calcium back into the bloodstream.

This regulation, under direction of the thyroid and parathyroid glands, is an example of the body’s numerous self-preservation mechanisms. Unfortunately, modern humans are somewhat prone to abusing this natural phenomenon; surpassing its capacity to cope with modern societal habits and lifestyle misdemeanors.

DIET and LIFESTYLE

One of the best ways to support our bones, ensuring that are better able to support us in older age, is to move the physical body. Bones become stronger in response to pressure being placed upon them; be that the pull of skeletal muscle, gravity, or the temperate impact of walking, running and jumping.

This positive stress leads to increased mineral deposition (NB: there are many more minerals than calcium alone) in the reservoir that can be transferred between the blood and bones as required throughout life. The stronger the bone, the more densely packed with life sustaining minerals, the more we are able to draw on its reserves; the caveat being that, like all a good pension plan, the sooner we start saving, the better it is for our long-term health.

Sedentary living, barely plausible a century past, seems to have become the norm in our modern world. Alarmingly, whilst current UK guidelines suggests that adults should engage in at least 150-minutes per week (roughly 20 minutes per day) of moderate aerobic activity; in 2008, the Health Survey for England found that only 6% of men and 4% of women were actually meeting this modest recommendation. (2)

Diet also plays a key role in the integrity of our bones. Acidic foods increase acidity in the blood, and the body responds by drawing minerals out of the bones to help re-alkalize the system. The more acidic we become, the more the body will draw from the bones mineral reserves.

Whilst this logic is easy enough to comprehend, the specifics around what does and doesn’t pertain to dietary acidity remains ambiguous.

Pasteurized dairy in the form of milk, cheese and yogurt, has long been accepted as “good for the teeth and bones”, yet it is increasingly becoming understood that an over reliance on animal derived calcium, coupled with the detrimental effects of modern intensive farming practice, is actually counter to this cause.

As Phyllis Balch explains in her seminal work on nutritional healing;

“People in the United States consume more dairy products per capita than any other two nations on earth put together, yet also have the world’s highest rates of osteoporosis and bone fractures among elderly people”. (3)

Additional influences in the development of osteoporosis are the quantity of meat, salt, sugar, alcohol and caffeine that people consume. Carbonated drinks are also problematic; and it goes without saying that a diet lacking in raw salad leaves and dark green leafy vegetables (both of which are excellent sources of dietary calcium) will exacerbate acidity.

ENTER STAGE THREE

What the BBC did not tell us in its subtle attack on ‘fad’ diets and the health advice given by anybody other than a medical doctor; but the National Osteoporosis Society in fact do, is that;

“If you don’t eat dairy products, you will need to include lots of other calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, almonds, sesame seeds, dried fruit, pulses, fortified soya drinks and soya protein (tofu) in your diet.”

And, significantly;

“A vegetarian diet is not a risk factor for osteoporosis and vegetarians and vegans do not appear to have poorer bone health than the rest of the population.” (4)

Dairy is delicious, and can be enjoyed as part of broad-based, seasonally variable diet.

But dairy is not an essential food group by any stretch of the imagination, and for too long we have been told that it is, by those who produce it in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and whose finances, rather than our health, are being put at risk as society realises it was being duped all along.

In the words of Arthur Schopenhauer;

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Calcium is needed for strong teeth and bones, but so too are many other minerals and vitamins; all of which are found abundantly in plants. And it is these, not dairy, that people are lacking and need to be encouraged to eat more of.

References:

  1. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-39557687
  2. University of Reading, 2015, Heart Health – a guide to cardiovascular disease.
  3. Phyllis A. Balch CNC, 2010, Prescription for Nutritional Healing.
  4. https://nos.org.uk/information/healthy-living-and-risk/healthy-eating-for-strong-bones/