FAQs — Health & Nutrition

Going dairy-free is great for your health but thanks to decades of the dairy industry's aggressive marketing, many people are worried about making that step. Here we answer the most frequently asked questions about dairy, your health and dairy-free diets.

Calcium is a mineral and naturally occurs in compounds such as limestone, chalk and marble. In the human body, it plays a central role in maintaining bone health and strength; around 99 per cent of our calcium is in the bones and teeth, the other one per cent is involved in the regulation of muscle contraction, heartbeat, blood clotting and functioning of the nervous system.

This s how much we need according to the UK government:

Children

  • 0-12 months: 525 mg
  • 1-3 years: 350 mg
  • 4-6 years: 450 mg
  • 7-10 years: 550 mg

Males

  • 11-18 years 1,000 mg
  • Over 19 years 700 mg

Females

  • 11-18 years: 800 mg
  • Over 19 years: 700 mg
  • During lactation: +550 mg

 

Latest studies show that calcium intake above the recommended dose offers no additional protection from fractures and can actually increase the risk.

While milk and dairy products do contain calcium, plant-based sources provide a much healthier source. Good plant-based sources include green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, spring greens, cabbage, parsley and watercress. Also rich in calcium are dried fruits such as figs and apricots, nuts, particularly almonds and Brazil nuts and seeds including sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste). Pulses including peas, beans, lentils and calcium-set tofu (soya bean curd) provide a good source of calcium as does molasses.

Calcium content of some plant foods:

Cauldron Foods plain tofu (100g) – 400mg, almonds (30g - a small handful) – 72mg, Brazil nuts (30g - a small handful) – 87mg, sesame seeds (1 tablespoon) – 56mg, tahini (10g - two teaspoons) – 68mg sunflower seeds (25g - a small handful) – 28mg, broccoli (80g portion boiled in unsalted water) – 32mg, kale (80g portion boiled in unsalted water) – 120mg, watercress (80g portion raw) – 136mg, dried figs (100g - four to six pieces of fruit) – 250mg, fortified plant milks (200ml glass) – 240mg

For more information, see the calcium fact sheet or calcium-rich foods poster.

Calcium is absorbed best from foods that also contain good amounts of magnesium – and many plant foods rich in calcium also have plenty of magnesium so it’s an easy equation. These foods are for example kale, cabbage, spring greens, broccoli, bok choy, almonds, other nuts and seeds, beans and dried figs.

Spinach contains a lot of calcium but it’s bound to a substance called oxalate which inhibits calcium absorption, so it’s best to not rely on spinach for calcium too much. 

Grains, nuts and seeds contain a substance called phytic acid which was considered to hinder calcium absorption; however phytic acid is now believed to have only a minor influence and cooking, baking and sprouting minimises its effects so it’s nothing to worry about.

Caffeine and smoking have been shown to reduce calcium absorption.

All mammals drink the milk of their mothers until they are weaned. Unlike all other mammals, humans continue to drink milk after weaning and into adulthood, and not just that, we drink the milk of another species! To state the obvious (but often overlooked) fact - cow’s milk has evolved to help turn a small calf into a cow in less than a year. That’s why cow’s milk contains around four times as much calcium as human milk. Calves need a huge amount of calcium for fast bone growth over the first year of life. A human infant does not require such high levels of calcium; indeed the high mineral content of cow’s milk puts a strain on the human infant kidney which is why most governments strongly recommend that children do not drink normal ‘off the shelf’ milk in the first year.

The proteins in cow's milk (especially casein) are the most common food allergen and most people in the world are unable to digest milk sugar, lactose, after weaning (they are lactose intolerant). The explanation to this is simple - cow's milk is not a natural food for people.

No, what they do need is exercise and a healthy plant-based diet. Research shows that physical exercise is the most critical factor for building and maintaining healthy bones, followed by improving the diet and lifestyle - this means eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, plant protein (pulses, nuts and seeds) and – especially important for teenagers - avoiding alcohol and smoking.

Children can get more than enough calcium from nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, beans, dried figs, fortified plant milks and yogurts.

For more information, see Healthy Bones for Life.

No, only 35-45 per cent of the calcium in the average UK diet comes from milk and milk products. So despite the misconceived notion that milk is the best (or only) source of calcium the facts show that a large share of the calcium in our diets is derived from sources other than dairy foods. This is not surprising as most people in the world (around 70 per cent) obtain their calcium from plant-based sources rather than dairy products.

While milk and dairy products do contain calcium, plant-based sources provide a much healthier source. Good plant-based sources include green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, spring greens, cabbage, parsley and watercress. Also rich in calcium are dried fruits such as figs and apricots, nuts, particularly almonds and Brazil nuts and seeds including sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste). Pulses including peas, beans, lentils and calcium-set tofu (soya bean curd) provide a good source of calcium as does molasses.

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar in milk. In order for the sugar in lactose to be digested it must be broken down in the gut by the enzyme lactase into its two component sugars (glucose and galactose). Most infants produce lactase for a while but lose the ability to digest lactose after weaning (commonly after the age of two). Losing this ability is a clear indication that after weaning, milk is not a natural food for us. In other words, being lactose intolerant after infancy is actually a natural state of being for all mammals.

Lactose intolerance occurs in around 90-100 per cent of Asians, 65-70 per cent of Africans and 10 per cent of Caucasians. Symptoms include nausea, cramps, bloating, wind, and diarrhoea.

Milk allergies occur when the body’s immune system perceives one of the proteins (casein or whey) in milk as a foreign invader and launches an attack. Symptoms usually include excessive mucus production resulting in a runny nose and blocked ears. More serious symptoms include eczema/rash, swelling of the throat, tongue or lips, colic, diarrhoea, asthma and vomiting.

Milk allergy is one of the most common food allergies in children. Any animal milk (not just cow’s milk) can cause an allergy.

Early exposure to cow’s milk formula has been linked to an immune response that can lead to type 1 diabetes in genetically susceptible children. The immune response involves the body’s immune system reacting to a trigger (which may be bovine insulin or a protein from cow’s milk - casein). Structural similarities between the triggering molecule and the insulin-producing pancreatic beta cells confuse the human immune system and it attacks the pancreatic cells by mistake. This then limits the ability of the pancreas to produce insulin and may lead to diabetes.

For more information see Viva!Health’s fully-referenced scientific report The Big-D: Defeating Diabetes through Diet and a practical guide The Big-D: defeating diabetes with the D-Diet, both can be downloaded here.

Several nutrients help calcium absorption. Vitamin D is very important for both calcium absorption and bone health - it is either obtained from the diet or it is made in the skin following exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency may occur if exposure to the sun is limited (eg in autumn and winter, if you’re housebound or always protect your skin from the sun) and without sufficient vitamin D, your body absorbs less calcium. It is now recommended that everyone in the UK (regardless of diet) takes a vitamin D supplement from October to April.

Vegans obtain vitamin D from sunlight and fortified foods such as soya milks, cereals and margarines. It is important to get the balance right between being cautious about exposure to the sun and aware of the need for some exposure. It is now advised by the UK government that we apply sun block after 10 to 15 minutes exposure to the sun, this is so that we can synthesise vitamin D in the skin.

Aside from vitamin D, we also need magnesium, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin K for good bone health. A healthy diet that includes at least seven servings a day of fruit and vegetables (including green leafy vegetables, such as kale, broccoli or rocket) should optimise the intake of these and other micronutrients required.

No, osteoporosis occurs most commonly in countries where people drink the most cow's milk! American women are among the biggest consumers of calcium in the world yet they suffer one of the highest levels of osteoporosis, while African Bantu women eat almost no dairy products at all and have a relatively low calcium intake from vegetable sources yet osteoporosis is virtually unknown among them. Milk consumption does not protect against bone fracture, in fact, an increased dairy calcium intake may even increase the risk of fracture.

Calcium loss from the bones has been linked to high intakes of animal protein. By the age of 80, vegetarians tend to have lost less bone mineral compared to omnivores. Research suggests that the more animal protein you eat, the higher your risk of hip fracture becomes. Cross-cultural studies show strong links between a high animal protein diet, bone degeneration and the occurrence of hip fractures. In a rural community in China where most of the protein in the diet came from plant foods rather than animal foods, the fracture rate was one-fifth of that in the US. 

For more information, see Healthy Bones for Life.

Yes it certainly can. There are no scientific reports of calcium deficiency in adult vegans. Looking solely at calcium intake and not at calcium losses tells only half the story - while a vegan’s intake might be lower than a meat- and dairy-eater’s, their losses are likely to be much lower. The evidence is that a plant-based diet free of animal products - a vegan diet - doesn’t produce these losses. A vegan diet rich in fruit and vegetables, pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds can provide the basis for a long and healthy life, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and many other diseases. In contrast, diets loaded with dairy products are associated with increased risk of osteoporosis, certain hormone-sensitive cancers, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

For more information, see the calcium fact sheet or calcium-rich foods poster.

  • Children and adults alike do not need dairy foods for good bone health; they do need exercise and a healthy plant-based diet to ensure strong bones.
  • You can get enough calcium to cover your body’s needs from green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, pulses, fortified plant milks and yogurts, dried figs and tahini (sesame seed paste).
  • Diets loaded with dairy products are associated with an increased risk of many diseases including asthma, osteoporosis, hormone-sensitive cancers, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
  • Cow’s milk is not a natural food for humans to consume.
  • Most people in the world are lactose intolerant – it’s a natural state of being as we’re not supposed to suckle past infancy.
  • Many children are affected by cow’s milk allergies and suffer from serious digestive problems if they consume milk and dairy products.
  • Looking only at calcium intake and not at calcium losses tells only half the story, while a vegan’s calcium intake might be lower than a meat- and dairy-eater’s, their losses are likely to be much lower. A plant-based diet free of animal products - a vegan diet – does not produce these losses.
  • There are no scientific reports of calcium deficiency in adult vegans.
  • Vitamin D, magnesium, potassium, vitamin C and vitamin K are all required for good bone health.

Your bones, just like the rest of your body, need a wide range of nutrients to be healthy. If you have a bad diet and top it up with an extra dose of calcium, you won’t get the benefits you might think you’re getting and it can actually be harmful for your bones. A healthy lifestyle is important for healthy bones too – bones adapt to physical stimulation so need you to be active and engage in a weight-bearing activity a few times a week (weight-bearing means anything where you carry the weight of your own body so it includes a wide range of activities apart from swimming and cycling).

These are our top tips for healthy bones:

  • Increase your fruit and vegetable intake to 7-10 per day
  • Use almonds for snacking and tahini (sesame seed paste) in cooking
  • Have some green leafy vegetables (kale, broccoli, cabbage, rocket, watercress) daily
  • Avoid protein from animal sources (meat, dairy, fish, eggs)
  • Exercise regularly, use stairs rather than lift, walk wherever you can
  • When watching TV, get up during ad breaks and walk around or do a few squats.
  • Get adequate vitamin D through sunshine or a supplement
  • Limit your alcohol intake and don’t smoke

For more information, see Healthy Bones for Life.

When a cow is suffering from mastitis (a painful bacterial infection of the udder), her body produces large numbers of white blood cells which fight the infection in the udder. Many of these cells together with dead cells from the inner lining of the udder then pass out in her milk and the greater the infection the higher the number of these 'somatic' cells (which is a sophisticated name for pus) in the milk. An increased number of somatic cells indicates infection so whilst a certain level of somatic cells is considered normal, higher levels mean there's an inflammation and the udder is shedding more cells than usual - white blood cells, dead cells and bacteria, in other words, the components of what we know as pus when it's contained in an abscess.

The average number of ‘somatic cells’ in one millilitre of milk (1/5 of a teaspoon) is 200,000. Under EU regulations, milk with a somatic cell count as high as 400 million per litre may still be sold for human consumption. Some farmers feed milk which exceeds this threshold to the calves.

Around 33-50 per cent of dairy cows suffer from clinical mastitis every year and 14 per cent of cows are culled as a result. Clinical mastitis produces symptoms such as swollen, hard udders causing a lot of pain to the cow and discoloured or clotted milk.

Antibiotics are routinely used to treat mastitis and may be injected up the teat canal or administered orally. To help decrease the occurrence of mastitis in dairy herds, most farmers practice 100 per cent dry cow therapy. This involves injecting a long-acting antibiotic into all four teats of all cows, whether infected or not, as soon as they enter their dry period. There are strict limits on antibiotic residues in milk so whilst there are always hormones and a little bit of pus in milk, the antibiotic residues are very low.

For more information, see the White Lies report.

Yes, there are 35 hormones and growth factors naturally present in cow's milk. These hormones are normal components of milk meant to direct and fuel the rapid growth of a calf. After all, a tiny calf reaches the almost-adult size in a year! 

These hormones are present in all milk and dairy products. Sometimes, the dairy industry deflects questions about hormones by saying they don't inject their cows with hormones but that only means there are no 'extra' hormones in the cows' milk. That's hardly reassuring! Dairy cows not only produce all the hormones naturally but because they are forcibly impregnated whilst lactating, their hormone levels rise even higher with the pregnancy. 

Many scientists now warn against dairy as some of the hormones present in it and their effects on the human body have been linked to an increased risk of hormone-sensitive cancers (particularly prostate and breast cancers).

For more information, see the White Lies report.

Related Resources

Building Bones for Life — Guide

Building Bones for Life — Guide

This guide provides all the theoretical and practical information you need to know about on healthy bones.

Everyone's Going Dairy-Free — Guide

Everyone's Going Dairy-Free — Guide

All you need to know about going dairy-free, including how to shop and cook!

Boning up on Calcium — Factsheet

Boning up on Calcium — Factsheet

All you need to know about calcium and where to get it!

Going Dairy-Free Super Pack

Going Dairy-Free Super Pack

Going dairy-free has never been so easy! This colourful pack is bursting with juicy information, tips and recipes and will help you ditch dairy for good.

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