Dairy has been blamed for all sorts of conditions from acne breakouts to bloating to hail damage (aka cellulite) and everything in between, but is it really the dietary devil? Or is cutting it out causing some serious long-term health issues? Also, what about the calcium factor? We all know calcium (a key component of dairy foods) is an essential part of our daily meal plan for healthy bones and teeth so dairy must have a role to play, but what exactly is it? With so many questions and so few legit answers from our regular knowledge go-to Google, we consulted expert GP, Dr Marissa Basil, from Sydney's MLC Medical Centre to bring some truth to the 'to dairy or not' question.

Read on for Dr Basil's answers to this pressing health Q:

Why do we need calcium? 
Our bodies need calcium for bone health. Throughout adult life inadequate calcium intake means your body takes its calcium needs from your bones and depleting this store results in low bone density, which increases the risk of fractures (a serious health problem in our ageing population). Also, studies have shown that those with a dairy-rich diet are less likely to be obese, and there is emerging evidence that calcium has other health benefits including protection from some cancers, hypertension and pre-eclampsia (a serious pregnancy condition).

So just how much calcium does an adult need on a daily basis? 
The recommended daily intake of calcium for an adult varies depending on sex and age, but according to the Osteoporosis Australia website the recommendation for men and women aged 19 plus is 1,000mg per day. And the best way to get that calcium into our bodies is through dietary sources because absorption via the gut is better.

What does 1,000mg of calcium look like? 
At least 3-5 serves of calcium-rich food per day are required to reach this amount and over 50 per cent of Australians do not get enough. An example of a solid daily intake of calcium is a glass of milk (250mL), a tub of yoghurt (200g) and a piece of cheese (40g).

Is going dairy-free ruining your health?

What other foods are calcium-rich? 
Other foods with a modest amount of calcium include tinned salmon with bones, sardines with bones, ricotta cheese, figs, mussels, oysters. There are small amounts of calcium in foods such as almonds, chickpeas, leafy veggies, tofu, cream cheese and cottage cheese. Full cream and low-fat cows milk are both high in calcium.

Is going dairy-free ruining your health?

Is there anything that reduces our body's ability to absorb calcium?
Calcium absorption is reduced by low vitamin D levels, excessive alcohol and caffeine intake, chronic medical conditions such as kidney disease, coeliac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease, and diets rich in phytates (contained in certain cereals) and oxalates (spinach and rhubarb).

What's the story with lactose intolerance? 
When people refer to lactose intolerance they are generally referring to the common condition called "Primary Lactase Deficiency" (PLD). For two-thirds of the population as we depart childhood our ability to produce lactase (the enzyme in the gut responsible for breaking down lactose) decreases to varying degrees. For some, lactose can still be tolerated to a reasonable degree but for others their tolerance is small.  Your genetic background plays a role and PLD is common in those with African, Asian, Hispanic, Mediterranean and Southern European decent.

If we are lactose intolerant, how can we get our daily calcium dose? 
The main issue is large volumes of dairy milk, but there are other options. Cheese is lower in lactose than milk and the higher fat content slows down transit in the gut making it easier to digest. Fermented cheeses like feta and cheddar are low in lactose and hard cheeses like parmesan and romano have very little lactose at all. Yoghurt is also better tolerated than milk because the bacteria digest much of the lactose before it is ingested by you. Other non-lactose alternatives include firm tofu, tinned salmon and sardines, and figs. 

Is going dairy-free ruining your health?

If our calcium stores are low, should we take supplements? 
Dietary calcium is always the preference, but for those who cannot ingest enough, calcium supplementation is an option. However, consult your medical professional before initiating supplementation to ensure it is safe to do so. Calcium supplements can cause some side effects such as constipation, kidney stones and there is mixed data regarding a link between high calcium intake and heart disease. Calcium supplements can also interact with other medications.

What about nut milks? 
Nut milks are a great alternative for coffee lovers who get symptoms of lactose intolerance with large volumes of dairy milk. Unfortunately dairy alternatives like nut milks contain very little calcium; however some are calcium and vitamin D fortified. Fortification certainly  improves calcium intake but it may not be absorbed as well as naturally occurring calcium-rich foods.

Is going dairy-free ruining your health?

Sounds like dairy isn't the devil after all but a very essential part of our daily diet line up.

Dr Marissa Basil (BSC Hons1 BEd MBBS Hons1 DipPaeds FRACGP) practices at: 
MLC Medical Centre, Suite 1003 Level 10 MLC Centre, 19 Martin Pl, Sydney 
Ph: (02) 9232 5477

Is going dairy-free ruining your health?