Q: I heard there will be changes in Canada’s Food Guide that affect the dairy food group. Can I drop dairy and still get enough calcium?
Dietary guidelines do change over time. For example, there’s a large and ongoing shift away from recommending a so-called “low fat” diet — which in the West tends to mean a high-sugar diet.
It’s important to pay attention to how those shifts affect the nutritional balance of what we eat overall. Many of us grew up with a kind of undying belief that milk — and everything that comes from it — is health food. In fact, many dairy or milk-based products, like flavoured yogurts, contain large amounts of sugar.
Some cheeses also have very high amounts of animal fat, and others can be highly processed. This kind of information may soon be highlighted on packaging as a result of changes proposed by Health Canada.
In my practice, I see many people who feel better when they go dairy-free. Some prefer to stick with goat and sheep milk products, which can be easier to tolerate than those made from cow milk, while others prefer to ditch it altogether. But if you’re thinking of dropping dairy, remember that it delivers two building blocks of a healthy diet: calcium and protein.
A glass of milk doesn’t have a ton of protein, but many milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, do. And there are many other sources of protein that function as excellent alternatives.
Calcium is key to sustaining healthy bones and teeth, and it’s an important ingredient in developing a healthy fetus during pregnancy. We used to recommend that women, especially those who are post-menopausal, take calcium supplements, but now we know that calcium is better absorbed by the body from food sources. There’s recent evidence to suggest that the supplement route can increase your risk of heart disease, so whenever possible, it’s better to get calcium from food. An online calcium calculator can help you keep track of what you’re getting.
There are, of course, lots of non-dairy sources of calcium (raw almonds, dark leafy greens, lentils), but something to keep in mind is that your body can’t absorb calcium without adequate levels of vitamin D. All store-bought milk (including cow, goat, almond, soy and rice milk) is fortified with vitamin D, but there aren’t a lot of other food sources. (The body produces it in response to sun exposure. In the winter months, nearly all Canadians need a vitamin D supplement, whether they eat dairy products or not.)
So if you do want to drop all dairy completely, just stay on top of your protein, calcium and vitamin D intake, and try using an online calculator to make sure your diet stays healthy and balanced.
Originally published December 2017; Updated December 2018.