Dear Mr. Dad: My husband fancies himself something of a nutrition expert and has been insisting that everyone in our family – that's him, our two sons, a daughter, and I – drink three glasses of milk every day. He says we need the calcium and protein. But I've been reading lately that milk might not be quite as important as all that. Who's right?
A: I hate to take a stand against something as wholesome as milk, but the truth is that you're right. Let's start with calcium, which we're told is essential for building and maintaining healthy bones. In general terms, that's true. However, in order for the calcium we get through milk to be properly absorbed and to make its way to our bones, we also need to consume the right amount of vitamin D and magnesium, and to a lesser extent, vitamin K. In fact, calcium by itself – which is usually the way it shows up in milk – might be worthless. Actually, less than worthless: it might even be causing some serious health problems.
When the ratio of calcium to those other nutrients gets out of whack (and it almost always is) and we end up consuming a disproportionate amount of calcium, the risk of developing kidney stones increases. So does the risk of stroke and heart disease. For your husband and sons, the risk of prostate cancer increases as well. And in one of nature's little ironies, according to some studies, too much calcium may increase – rather than decrease – the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. We'll get back to that in a minute.
Now, let's talk about your husband's other issue: protein. Many nutritionists these days believe that most Americans and others in developed countries get plenty of protein, and that too much – specifically animal protein, including that found in milk – like too much calcium, is quite harmful. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, Americans are consuming roughly twice as much protein as we need and is healthy. The list of increased risks associated with excess protein is similar: kidney stones, kidney disease, arthritis, and some cancers.
Okay, let's get back to that irony. Too much protein interferes with the body's ability to absorb calcium and may even pull it out of the bones, weakening them and making them more susceptible to osteoporosis and fracture. Weird, isn't it?
Alissa Hamilton, author of "Got Milked," points to several studies that she says show that the countries with the lowest calcium consumption rates, which are predominately Asian countries where milk consumption is very low, also have the lowest hip-fracture rates. Conversely, the U.S. and other high-milk/calcium consumption countries also have the highest hip-fracture rates.
Although your husband is wrong on milk, calcium, and protein, I'm not suggesting that you eliminate them from your diet entirely. You all need calcium and protein, although not as much as you're getting right now. And milk and other dairy products can be important sources. But they shouldn't be your only sources. I recommend that you consult with your healthcare provider to ensure that you're getting enough magnesium, vitamin D, and the other cooperating nutrients to most efficiently and completely absorb calcium and maintain your overall health.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)