Quality as well as Quantity: Key to Calcium

Milk and dairy products are staple foods in the Irish diet. Whilst milk is an important source of a range of nutrients, including protein, riboflavin and vitamin B12 - most people associate milk and dairy products with being an important source of calcium.

Milk deserves to have a well-earned positive reputation for its delivery of calcium, according to Dr. Catherine Logan, Nutrition Manager with The National Dairy Council. Research and scientific opinions about milk and dairy as a source of calcium are the subject of the latest edition of DN Forum – the NDC publication specifically written for health professionals.

“In simple terms, milk and dairy don’t just contain calcium, they also provide calcium to us in a form which is easy for our bodies to get the best benefit from the calcium – or in more scientific terms in a ‘bioavailable’ form,” says Dr. Logan.

Irish surveys demonstrate the significance of milk and dairy as a source of calcium in the Irish diet, but also, according to Dr. Logan, there is more to calcium than simply consuming it.

‘Calcium Bioavailability’ is the term used to describe the amount of calcium that our bodies can actually absorb and make use of. DN Forum highlights that whilst calcium is available from a number of food sources, the high ‘bioavailability’ of calcium from milk and dairy products in particular, means that the calcium from milk and dairy is easily absorbed and available to the body for physiological functions, like bone development and maintenance.

Calcium absorption can be affected in a positive way by the complimentary package of nutrients and components also available in dairy foods that favour calcium absorption. Research indicates that proteins, phosphopeptides and lactose are amongst the components in milk and dairy believed to favour calcium absorption.- although further research is required to confirm the exact effect of such components on calcium absorption in healthy people consuming a typical diet.

Furthermore, milk and dairy benefit by not containing components such as oxalates or phytates as these can form insoluble complexes with calcium reducing the bioavailability of calcium from some food types. Such components contribute to the reduced bioavailability of calcium from certain plant foods, such as spinach or rhubarb.

Other factors that can influence calcium absorption include Vitamin D status, as Vitamin D plays an important role in the regulation of active calcium transport; and physiological states such as stages of increased growth, pregnancy and lactation.

Food Pyramid Guidelines Should Not Be Out of Reach

The ‘milk, cheese and yogurt’ food group occupy a designated self in the Irish Department of Health and Children’s Food Pyramid , which provides guidance on the number of portions to be consumed from each of the food groups as part of a balanced diet.

Results from the SLÁN 2007 Report tell us that nearly two-thirds (61%) of respondents consumed fewer than the recommended servings of “three dairy per day” for adults. One serving of dairy equates to just ⅓ pint (189ml) milk, 1oz (28g) cheddar-type cheese (about the size of a match box) or 1 carton (125g) of yogurt.

However, the Irish Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium increases from 800 mg/day between the ages of 1-10 years and 18+ years, to 1200 mg/day during the ages of 11-17 years, pregnancy (second half) and lactation (first six months).

Therefore, during the teenage years and pregnancy or breastfeeding, five daily servings of dairy is advised. Yet, the IUNA National Teen’s Food Survey tells us that 42% of Irish teenage girls and 23% of Irish teenage boys have insufficient calcium intakes, which is a very worrying trend.

There are a number of possible implications associated with insufficient calcium intakes,” says Dr. Catherine Logan, Nutrition Manager with The National Dairy Council. “It is important to establish healthy diet and lifestyle habits in childhood, but also to continue these habits during the transition to adolescence and then adulthood.

“Maintaining the milk and dairy food group within a balanced diet in line with the food pyramid guidelines, is recommended for Irish families.”

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