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Got Milk? Calcium and the Mediterranean Diet

November 1, 2011

When we think of the traditional Mediterranean Diet, we’re much more apt to picture its delicious foods accompanied by a small glass of wine rather than a big glass of milk. This alarms some people who ask us, “Isn’t the Med Diet low in calcium? What about bone health?”

In fact, the scientific evidence is strong and compelling that people who follow a traditional Mediterranean Diet do just fine in the calcium and bone health departments. Here’s just some of the evidence showing why:

Med Diet May Significantly Increase Calcium Uptake. A 2007 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition fed a group of young men a normal diet and then a Mediterranean-type diet, both with the same level of calcium intake. Tests showed that the young men absorbed 40% more calcium from the Mediterranean Diet and retained 80% more, resulting in bone markers reflecting a higher bone turnover rate (a good thing!).

Med Diet Has “Bone-Sparing” Properties. Another 2007 study, this time from Médicines Paris, found “conspicuous differences in the severity of osteoporosis” in different parts of Europe, with the lowest incidence in the Mediterranean area. The study attributed this to foods containing “a complex array of naturally occurring bioactive molecules with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and alkalinizing properties that may contribute to the bone-sparing effect of Mediterranean diet.”

It turns out that an increasing body of research shows we may be barking up the wrong tree, in fact, when we assume that more calcium results in fewer fractures.

More Calcium? No help with Fractures. Swedish scientists followed 61,433 women for 19 years. Their research, published in 2011 in the British Medical Journal, found that hip fractures did not decrease with increased intake of calcium. In fact, the researchers concluded that the highest intake of calcium “did not further reduce the risk of fractures of any type, or of osteoporosis, but was associated with a higher risk of hip fracture.”

So who are we to believe? It’s a little head-scratching that scientists in different countries, using the same body of evidence from international studies, come up with different calcium recommendations for people over 50 — ranging from 700mg in the UK, 800mg in Scandinavia, to 1,200mg in the US and 1,300mg in Australia. Since the human body just is not that different from country to country, it’s safe to assume that maybe the evidence isn’t absolute for one particular level of calcium over another.

Around the world, it’s rare for traditional diets to include milk in adult diets. So how do traditional diets like the Mediterranean Diet ensure good bone health? The answers lie in Vitamin D from sunshine and fish; in weight-bearing exercise; in natural sources of calcium such as white beans, leafy greens, little bony fish like sardines and anchovies, or cheese and yogurt. So go dig in your garden, fix yourself a delicious Mediterranean feast full of healthy whole foods, enjoy a paseo around the neighborhood, and relax, knowing your bones will thank you.

– Cindy

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 13, 2011 10:54 am

    I am a holistic health counselor and I think that the pyramids are great. I am curious of what you think of the pyramids in comparison with the USDA food guide pyramid. Holistic health professionals are teaching against it and I was curious whether these pyramids what is recommended? Are they based on what people are already eating? I really want to incorporate these teachings into my practice.

    What do you think of the pyramids being consumed by everyone? Are they just for people of that descent? I am really looking forward to learning more and I have already checked out the resources at oldways.com and I can’t wait to read them. If there are any additional resources that you could recommend please don’t hesitate to share.

    Thank you,

    Shelia Richer

    • November 15, 2011 3:47 pm

      Sheila,

      Thank you for reaching out and for the kind words about our Oldways pyramids. USDA’s pyramid is/was largely science-based but had some major drawbacks, such as its lack of differentiation between types of grains, types of fats, etc. The main reason it ultimately failed was because it didn’t depict real food – we don’t eat colored stripes! When you look at the USDA graphic, you don’t know what to do. But when you look at our pyramids, you say, “I get it. That’s what I should eat for good health — and wow, it looks delicious!”

      Our Health through Heritage pyramids are meant to inspire people to connect with their own ancestry, but we also encourage them as role models for everyone, of every ethnic background. Maybe your grandparents are from Norway, but you really like Latino flavors: feel free to turn to our Latin-American Diet Pyramid for advice. Or maybe you’re of Asian background and want to explore a different flavor palate: our new African Heritage Pyramid can introduce you to a range of new tastes. We hope that our pyramids make the overall point that virtually all traditional diets are healthier than the typical Western diet.

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  1. Mediterranean diet: What is the Mediterranean diet? – latimes.com « Mind Your Language

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