Do we really need dairy for healthy teeth?
From childhood, we are told that the calcium in dairy is essential for growing strong bones and teeth. It’s as if our teeth will become chalky and brittle if we don’t drink milk. What is lacking from this message, however, is whether dairy is the best source of calcium.
While it is true that dairy products do contain calcium, it is also accompanied by lactose sugar, animal growth factors, chemical contaminants, a considerable amount of fat, sodium and cholesterol, and animal proteins. These animal proteins also have a detrimental effect on our general health. Animal protein consumption has been linked with four of the most prevalent diseases in the West: coronary heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer and autoimmune diseases. So, packed with bovine oestrogens, antibiotics, lipids, protein, growth factors (IGF-I) and sodium, cow’s milk is the perfect liquid to rapidly turn a baby calf into a big cow but certainly not the best source of calcium for us.
First of all, let us examine why calcium is essential to our oral health.
Although teeth and bones are quite similar in that they are both composed of calcium, phosphate and water, there are some significant differences with regards to how they function.
Bones are a dynamic tissue that renews continuously throughout our lives and calcium is essential for this process. This makes it important to maintain an adequate daily intake of calcium for optimal bone health.
Teeth, on the other hand, develop during our early years, when it is crucial children consume enough calcium in order to form strong, healthy teeth. Once they erupt through the gum, enamel (surface hard tissue of teeth) become avascular, meaning there is no blood supply to the enamel. Dentine on the other hand (underlying hard tissue of the teeth) has dentinal tubules, which in a way serve as capillaries to supply nutrients to the teeth. Although teeth continue to heal and remodel through apposition of new hard tissue on the inside of the tooth, most calcium and phosphate is dynamically dissolved and deposited into hard tooth structure through the surface enamel. In other words, the oral environment is even more important than how much calcium you consume. Frequent sugar consumption would tip the balance and cause calcium to be drawn out of the enamel. Conversely, a healthy diet, low in simple sugars, will promote calcium deposition.
Whilst these processes are at play, you do not need a great deal of calcium to maintain healthy teeth in adulthood, the role of calcium in maintaining healthy bones should not be underestimated though. A lack of calcium can affect bones throughout the body, resulting in low bone density and osteoporosis. Despite a common misconception, osteoporosis doesn’t only affect women. Interestingly, populations in countries where little dairy is consumed have lower incidence of osteoporosis and hip fractures in contrast to Western countries where dairy consumption is encouraged. Although, osteoporosis can affect jaw bones, the rest of the skeleton is more susceptible to this condition.
So how much calcium does a healthy adult need?
The recommended daily intake of calcium varies depending on a number of factors such as age, gender, or whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding. It can even be influenced by your location. For instance in some Asian countries the recommended daily intake is only 600mg per day, half the 1200mg recommended in Western countries.
It should also be noted that calcium is not the only nutrient you should be worried about for healthy bones. It is also essential to make sure you get enough phosphate (obtained from phosphorus) and vitamin D.
Vitamin D increases the efficiency of calcium absorption in the body. One of the easiest sources of vitamin D is sunlight, as it synthesised in the skin upon exposure to UV radiation. Of course, the benefits must be balanced against the risks, so avoid spending prolonged periods in the sun, particularly when the sun is at its strongest between 10am and 4pm, and make sure you apply sunscreen.
If you are unable to boost your vitamin D through sun exposure, you can always take a supplement instead.
Phosphorus can be obtained from in protein-rich foods such as nuts, legumes, seeds and grains but is not generally recommended to be taken as a supplement.
Another important factor in keeping our bones healthy is preventing calcium loss. One of the best ways to do this is through daily weight-bearing exercise, as well as, importantly, reducing coffee intake and giving up smoking.
It should be emphasised that calcium is most certainly important for our health. You sometimes hear that vegans do not need as much calcium due to their overall high nutrition intake. This is not supported by scientific evidence and it is important that vegans put as much thought as non-vegans into their daily calcium intake.
Overall, calcium is essential. But dairy products are not the only, or even the best, source of calcium. Nuts, legumes, green leafy vegetables and fortified milk alternatives are excellent sources of dietary calcium, without the nasties of the dairy.