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    Fail! US News & World Report on Dairy-Free Calcium-Rich Foods

    I was hopeful when I initially came across the headline for a recent article in US News & World Report — “5 Non-Dairy Foods With Calcium”.

    “Finally,” I thought, “a well-read magazine informing its readers that calcium is not a synonym for dairy.”

    Then I started reading the story. And groaned. Repeatedly.

    Much like their ridiculous “healthiest diets” article from last year (see my critique here), factual errors, misleading statements, and unhelpful information abound in this piece.

    Below, the five worst tidbits that perpetuate incorrect information:

    Roberta Anding, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), says the advantage of plant-based calcium is that it ensures you’re eating lots of veggies—another important part of any diet.

    The advantages of plant-based calcium go far beyond “eating lots of veggies”.

    What is much more important to point out is that calcium-rich plant-based foods also offer other minerals crucial for bone health (such as vitamin K and manganese) which are absent in dairy. Dark-leafy greens also offer a superior calcium-to-magnesium ratio (half of all magnesium is stored in bones, so it is just as important as calcium for bone health) which ensures better absorption of both.

    Avoiding dairy also comes with a warning. “There are compounds in plants that bind to calcium and prevent you from absorbing it,” Anding says. “Although they’re good sources of calcium on paper, physiologically, the amount of calcium is not so great. Dairy calcium is biologically available, meaning you absorb what’s in the product.”

    There is absolutely no reason to raise red flags or heed warnings about going dairy-free.

    The above quote is horribly misleading, as it suggests that only the calcium in dairy is biologically available. In reality, studies on calcium bioavailability have demonstrated that, from an absorption standpoint, kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, surpass milk.

    “There are compounds in plants that bind to calcium and prevent you from absorbing it.”

    Also misleading. Some calcium-rich plant foods, like spinach, are high in oxalates, compounds that inhibit the absorption of some minerals, including calcium. However, plenty of dark leafy greens high in calcium (i.e.: kale, broccoli rabe, collard greens) are very low in oxalates.

    Nuts are an excellent source of calcium. One cup of Brazil nuts has 213 mg., and 1 cup of whole almonds has 378 mg., more than a cup of milk, which has 299 mg. Snacking on these throughout the day or eating almond butter (instead of peanut butter) in a sandwich at lunch can give you at least a quarter of your recommended daily calcium intake.

    This is not helpful or practical advice; no one eats (or should eat) nuts by the cup. Additionally, two tablespoons of almond butter — a reasonable amount to slather on a sandwich — provide approximately nine percent of a day’s worth of calcium.

    Rather than provide inflated serving sizes for nuts, the article should point out that some nuts offer a decent amount of calcium along with compounds (antioxidants, phytonutrients) and heart-healthy fats not available in milk. Looking at foods through a single-nutrient lens is reductive; almonds are much more than “a vegan source of calcium”.

    Soymilk usually has between 200 and 500 mg. of calcium per cup.

    Yes, but why single out soy milk? At this point, almost every commercial plant milk (i.e.: almond, coconut, flax, hazelnut, hemp, oat, rice, sunflower, and oat) is an excellent source of calcium.

    For a much better read on dairy-free sources of calcium, I suggest this article by the Vegetarian Resource Group.

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    10 Comments

    1. Brandon said on March 15th, 2012

      Nuts are not an excellent source of Calcium. An actual serving of nuts does not have enough Calcium to be labeled “excellent source of”. As you point out, a serving of nut butter does not even have enough to be a “good source of”.

      Why single out soy milk? They even add Calcium to OJ, which also has plenty of Vitamin C to help the bioavailability of Calcium.

      Also, why mention bioavailability of Calcium in green vegetables but not in soymilk? I bet it’s not as available as Calcium in regular milk either. Now, where’s my check from the National Dairy Council…

    2. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2012

      Brandon,

      Vitamin C is not relevant to calcium absorption — you are thinking of iron.

      Also, the article mentions calcium-fortified orange juice.

      The point is that this article wasted what could been a great opportunity to talk about calcium-rich, dairy-free foods as well as — and this is extremely important — vital nutrients for bone health found in plant foods that are not in dairy.

    3. Brandon said on March 15th, 2012

      Why is Vit C not relevant to Calcium absorption? Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, are all +2 and Vit C helps keep it that way… Although, when I make that statement, I am assuming that they all oxidize the same way, are all ‘repaired’ by Vit C the same way, and are all best absorbed at +2.

      I think the “issue” is that [the target audience] doesn’t even eat 1 cup of green veggies a day, so telling them to eat 3 a day (to get enough Calcium) to replace what you would’ve gotten from drinking milk is not good/realistic advice [for their target audience]. That’s a long sentence, hopefully it made sense.

    4. Brandon said on March 15th, 2012

      [Continuation from last comment] So the person from AND makes general comments instead of trying to get into specifics. I agree it’s not good, but that may be because nutrition and media/community nutrition is not a main focus of many nutrition classes and dietetic internships, so many dietitians are underprepared.

      One thing I don’t like is that processed foods are generally accepted as ‘bad’ in nutrition circles, except these plant milks. They get a pass. Not sure why.

    5. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2012

      Brandon,

      The target audience has nothing to do with my critiques. This article gives incorrect information about dairy-free sources of calcium. Spinach should never be used to talk about good sources of calcium; kale and mustard greens are much better.

      This is not about telling people to eat 3 cups of greens every day; it is about providing accurate nutrition information, and also pointing out that looking at bone health through the calcium lens alone is reductionist and myopic.

    6. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2012

      The spokesperson from AND is not just making “general comments”, she is making erroneous and misleading ones.

      As far as the processing of plant milks — unsweetened plant milks are not highly processed foods. If anything, Nesquik is more processed.

      Besides, unless you are talking about non-homogenized milk, then most commercial milks undergo processing.

      All plant milks can be made at home using a blender and a nutmilk bag, too.

    7. Brandon said on March 15th, 2012

      I made a fruit smoothie for 3000 middle schoolers that also had kale in it to make it green, and after revealing the secret ingredient, I received countless, I mean many many many, inquiries as to “What is kale?” I had to have fresh kale on me as I was handing out the recipe to show them what kale was. That is why the target audience is important, because it might be why the person chose to use spinach as an example instead of kale/mustard greens.

    8. Andy Bellatti said on March 15th, 2012

      Brandon,

      Precisely. This article could have been utilized to educate millions of people on kale, rather than spit out the so-tired-it’s-comatose “spinach isn’t a good source of calcium because of oxalates, so let’s paint all dark leafy greens with the same brush”.

    9. Daniel said on March 15th, 2012

      I read this during work this afternoon and I pretty much felt the same way while doing so. The comment that I found the saddest/most hilarious was “Flax seeds are also good—a cup will give you 428 mg.”

      A cup of flax seeds? That also comes with about 70 grams of fat, 46 grams of fiber and a ton of digestive issues when ingested in large quantities. I had such high hopes for this article – finally, someone is spotlighting calcium from something other than dairy products!

      I did enjoy the tidbit about herbs and there should have been more comments similar to this one (or at least a greater focus on them):

      “Although you won’t be eating these by the bucketful, sprinkling them on salads, cooked vegetables, or other dishes will certainly help you get to your 1,000 mg. target.”

      You know, little changes add up to big results?

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