Maple Farm Animal Sanctuary - Mendon MASS
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The Milk Myth

Many of us were told as children that drinking milk was one of the nutritional foundations for growing healthy bones and teeth. This pervasive message, a product of the oft-debated food pyramid, continues into adulthood, particularly for women, who are encouraged to eat dairy in order to ward off bone loss

In reality, it is calcium, a mineral found in many foods, from leafy greens to baked beans, that is critical for healthy bones, nerves, and muscles. Equally important is vitamin D, which is difficult to get from any food. While milk may be advertised as a good source of vitamin D, it only has trace amounts of it. It’s fortified, but so are many brands of orange juice and breakfast cereals. The bottom line is that calcium and vitamin D are important, but milk is not necessarily the best source.

In fact, drinking milk may have more health risks than benefits. Studies have linked the high levels of saturated fat, allergens, and Bovine Growth Hormone (a synthetic hormone that artificially increases milk production) in commercial dairy to ovarian cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, increased body inflammation, and Type 1 diabetes. Not to mention that three-quarters of humankind lack the enzymes to comfortably digest dairy. This statistic isn’t surprising when you consider that humans are the only mammals that drink milk after infancy, and we are the only species that drinks another species’ milk.

What is most heartbreaking is the widespread perception that dairy cows graze in green, open pastures, side by side with their calves and cow families for the whole of their lives. In reality, the vast majority of dairy cows live inside commercial facilities, tethered to milking stations. In researching her book, Cash Cow: Ten Myths About The Dairy Industry, Elise Desaulniers found that cows are "milked three hundred and five days per year, which means they are also milked for most of their pregnancy…They are artificially inseminated so that they are kept pregnant and lactating almost all the time.”

Calves who would normally suckle for nine months are taken away from their mothers after two days and fed milk replacer, so that we can drink the milk that was meant for them. Male calves are typically sold for veal, while female calves are often raised as dairy cows, repeating the cycle.

Plant-based Alternatives

On average, we absorb about 30 percent of the calcium found in milk. We absorb nearly twice that amount when we eat vegetables such as kale, broccoli, bok choy, and spinach. Calcium can also be found in delicious foods like almonds, figs, edamame, and tahini. You can learn more about calcium-rich foods by visiting Ginny Messina’s vegan calcium primer on The Vegan RD blog.

To get your Vitamin D, drink fortified almond, soy, rice, coconut, and hemp milks, as well as fortified orange juice and breakfast cereals, or you can simply bask in the sun.

The Full Helping blog ranks the following wholesome options as the best plant-based sources of calcium, and lists how far each food will get you towards 100% of your daily RDA:

  1. Fortified almond, soy, or rice milk, 8 ounces: 300-500mg (30-50%)
  2. Fortified orange juice, 8 ounces: 350 mg (35%)
  3. Collard greens, cooked, 1 cup: 270 mg (27%)
  4. Fortified breakfast cereal, 1 cup dry: 250-1000 mg (25-100%)
  5. Turnip greens, steamed or boiled, 1 cup: 200 mg (20%)
  6. Mustard greens, steamed or boiled, 1 cup: 160 mg (16%)
  7. Bok choy, steamed or boiled, 1 cup: 150 mg (15%)
  8. Tempeh, 4 ounces: 120 mg (12%)
  9. Tahini, 2 tablespoons: 120 mg (12%)
  10. Dried figs, 1/2 cup: 120 mg (12%)
  11. Extra firm tofu, 3 ounces: 100 mg – 150 mg (10-15%)
  12. Oats, instant, 1 serving: 100 mg (10%)
  13. Kale, steamed or boiled, 1 cup: 100 mg (10%)
  14. Shelled edamame, steamed, 1 cup: 100 mg (10%)
  15. Silken tofu, 3 ounces: 80 mg (8%)
  16. Blackstrap molasses, 1 tablespoon: 80 mg (8%)
  17. Almond butter, 2 tablespoons: 80 mg (8%)
  18. Almonds, 1 ounce: 80 mg (8%)
  19. Orange, 1-cup sections: 70 mg (7%)
  20. Navy beans, cooked, ½ cup: 65 mg (6.5%)
  21. Broccoli, steamed or boiled, 1 cup: 60 mg (6%)
  22. Pinto beans, cooked, ½ cup: 50 mg (5%)

A plant-based diet is a win-win. Not only is it cruelty-free, it is also extremely healthy. A study published in 2015 in the “American Journal of Health Promotion” found that a plant-based diet can boost both physical health and emotional well-being. Perhaps that’s why 11 team members of the Tennessee Titans went vegan last season, a change they credit for adding power and speed to their defense, which ranked third against the run and fifth in the league with 40 sacks. "My energy levels have gone up," says Wesley Woodyard, the team’s leading tackler. "And it's just putting in good fuel to your body.”

—written by MFS volunteer Jennifer Novak