Dairy, calcium and that big word bioavailability

Some might say yesterday was legendairy.

Yesterday I attended a scientific symposium on the drivers and unintended consequences of dairy and wheat avoidance. It was a day full of learning and building my knowledge-base as a dietitian in the areas of dairy, calcium, wheat, food intolerances and food avoidances.

There was also great company and tasty food. Winning.

Speakers included Professor Connie Weaver from Purdue University in the USA, Professor Philip Mohr from the University of Adelaide, Gastroenterologist Dr Evan Newnham, and the allergy-nut and very experienced clinical dietitian Dr Anne Swain from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit. Cue fan-girl squeal. 

Professor Connie Weaver and myself at the Legendairy event

Professor Connie Weaver and myself at the Dairy Australia Scientific Symposium

What did we learn at the event?

While I learnt a great deal about dairy, calcium, wheat, gluten-sensitivity and how to apply all of this knowledge into my dietetics practice, there are a few messages that I want to share with my readers…

1. Dairy makes up part of a healthy diet and contributes to a healthy body weight.

Research suggests that those people who consume yoghurt and milk as part of their regular diet tend to have a better quality diet overall. Yoghurt and milk contain a range of essential nutrients for the human body and it has actually been found that diets that are low in dairy products tend to be poor in calcium, potassium, vitamin D and many more nutrients.

To those who count your calories, you should know that dairy is a pretty good group of foods to include in your diet when you calculate the array of nutrients it provides in relation to number of calories consumed.

Gorgeous cheese platter designed by The Dairy Kitchen

Also, contrary to popular belief you won’t gain weight if you include dairy products in your diet.

Clinical studies show that in those following a calorie-restricted weight-loss diet that includes milk, cheese and yoghurt, they had greater weight loss than in those who followed a calorie-restricted weight-loss diet consisting of less dairy products.

80% of Australians are not meeting their recommended serves of dairy products each day. So get on it people! 

2. The lactose intolerant can still enjoy dairy products

Well this is true to a certain degree.

Did you know that with each passing day the lactose content of yoghurt decreases because the natural bacteria in the yoghurt actually feeds off the lactose for energy?

Also, some cheeses contain zero (or close to it!) amounts of lactose. So it’s not all bad news for you lactose intolerant dairy-lovers.


3. Calcium bioavailability varies between foods

Well we know that our dairy products like cow’s milk, cheese and yoghurt all contain really good amounts of calcium. And I hope that by now we are all aware that we need to be having our 3 serves of dairy (or suitable alternatives) each day in order to meet our calcium requirements.

But calcium is found in many food sources other than dairy products. And what you may not know is that the amount of calcium absorbed by the body differs in all the different food products.

The amount of calcium (or any nutrient) that is absorbed from a food and then used by the body is known as the bioavailability.

Calcium absorption (or bioavailability) of spinach is much lower than that of milk. This means that you getter better bang for your buck when consuming milk over spinach if you are after a good serve of calcium.

But did you know that the bioavailability of broccoli, bok choy & kale are actually better than cow’s milk? This means that the percentage of calcium absorbed by the body in these green veggies is actually better than in milk.

But before you go and replace your morning cereal and milk with that kale smoothie, it is important to understand that much much much much more broccoli, bok choy or kale would be needed than milk to meet your calcium requirements. This is because the calcium content in vegetables is already much lower than in dairy products.

So while you absorb a smaller percentage of calcium in milk and dairy products, there is much more calcium already there in the food. Therefore, you are still better off enjoying your milk for a serve of calcium.

FYI there is calcium in almonds too. But there is a lot less calcium in almonds than cow’s milk. Also the bioavailability of calcium in almonds is lower at 21%, compared to cow’s milk being 32%.


So yesterday was legendairy.

I learnt a lot about the latest evidence on dairy and wheat, and it was a fantastic chance to catch up with other dietitians.

A big thank you to Dairy Australia for hosting such an informative event, the amazing speakers for sharing your knowledge and also to the always fabulous Emma Stirling from Scoop Nutrition for organising a great prelude to the main event; the Dietitian Bloggers Briefing.

But the highlight of the day? Well that was of course the yoghurt bar…

– Jenna


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