Nov 19 , 2021
One of our earliest dietary lessons has always been the proclamation that drinking milk will help us get tall, strong and guarantee healthy teeth. Every school kid will vouch for this. I remember, the best part about visiting the doctor’s clinic as a kid was being rewarded by Ganesh uncle, (his compounder) with a chewable Sandoz calcium tablet. The fact that it was only for us kiddies and not for the adults was the most thrilling aspect!!
As Indians, for most of us (especially the vegetarians), milk becomes the main source of calcium and protein. Milk is nature’s best health drink. Mother’s milk is the 1st complete food for an infant at least for the first 6 months of their life. During this time, a phase of rapid growth is seen, where the child is expected to double their birth weight in the first year of their life, a large contributor being mother’s milk.
From the beginning of time, milk and milk products have had a place of prominence in almost all Indian diets. Cow and Buffalo milk is most commonly consumed in India, but many North Indian states also consume goat and Yak milk as it is easily available. Likewise, camel and goat milk are popular in states like Rajasthan. Recent years have seen an influx of Soy, Almond, Coconut and groundnut milk in Indian markets as an alternative to good old cow milk. For an easy understanding of the role of milk calcium, we will refer to cow’s milk in this write up.
To start with, the Bio availability of calcium from milk is about 30% (give or take). Bio availability of calcium means the fraction of calcium that is absorbed and used in the body for bones, teeth etc. Thus, when we discuss the calcium content of foods alone, it does not give us the entire picture.
For eg: I may consume 300 mg of calcium through milk and milk products, but only about 100mg of it will be absorbed and used in the body. Some factors that aid Calcium absorption are:
- Vitamin D
- Casein/ Casein phosphopeptides in milk (Casein is a type of milk protein the other being whey.)
On the other hand, certain leafy vegetables have high calcium content, but their bio availability is low due to the presence of inhibitors like phytates and oxalates.
For eg: Spinach is an excellent source of calcium but close to 8 cups of spinach will need to be consumed to obtain the same amount of calcium found in 1 cup of milk. So, unless you are Popeye or have the gut of a bovine, DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!! (OR ANYWHERE ELSE FOR THAT MATTER!).
Cow’s milk has undoubtedly proven to be the best and richest source of calcium in our foods. This means that their products too are a dense source of calcium (among other nutrients.) As Indians, we knew this all along!!
Calcium performs multiple functions in the body and is an important mineral. It has an indispensable role in bone and dental health, efficient muscle contraction, blood clotting, proper functioning of various hormones etc, not just in the growing years but throughout a person’s lifetime.
The role of calcium in the human body is constantly being studied world over and deserves a chapter in itself. Calcium is essential right from conception in the mother’s womb.
The Ideal recommendation for Calcium intake for Indian men and women has been standardized. Pregnant and lactating mothers are expected to consume 1200mg/ day. The requirements for Indian adults range from 600-800mg/ day. Adolescents and athletes have a higher requirement for calcium, as against sedentary individuals.
Calcium intake is contraindicated if one has a history of renal and gall bladder complications, surgery of the colon, certain gastro intestinal disorders etc. Consultation with the physician is advised before deciding on self supplementation.