14th November 1999

Front Page|
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports|
Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine

The Sunday Times on the Web


Continuing our series on vegetarianism.

Calcium for the vegetarian

By Mahipali

As a vegetarian, Mahipali found Dr Sisisra Siribaddana's article "The bone of contention" (Sunday Times 31.10.99) to be of much interest. Unlike most doctors in Sri Lanka, he was considerably fair by us vegetarians and said that "calcium from some vegetables is absorbed as well as or better than calcium from milk and milk products".

But one would like to explore his observation that "these foods have a significantly lower amount of calcium per serving" and that after all, milk is "the primary source of calcium".

From what he has read, Mahipali tends to think that the lower content should not matter because in the first place vegetarians may not need as much calcium as omnivores. As for dairy products, there is an emerging trend that tends to devalue them - in stark contrast to the glorification of pas-go-rasa in the traditional cuisine of India and Sri Lanka.

Perhaps few amongst us realise that there is a huge community of vegetarians out there in the world today. What is more, that this community comprises almost all strata of society - academics, artists, athletes, philosophers, scientists, politicians, business people and other professionals not excluding doctors and nutritionists.

Among doctors and other medical professionals who are vegetarians, none are more vocal in the advocacy of vegetarianism than the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a US based organisation founded in 1991 by Dr Neal Barnard, M.D., who continues to be its President. Aside from serving as a practising physician on the Faculty of George Washington School of Medicine, he has also been Associate Director for Behavioural Studies at the U.S. Institute for Disease Prevention.

What is most interesting is that more and more doctors like Neal Barnard are recommending not just vegetarianism, but strict vegetarianism or veganism, which discards even the use of dairy products, as the diet most favourable to maintenance of good health.

Now to the question of calcium. An Australian publication based on PCRM recommendations, has the following entry on this mineral: "Dark green vegetables, raw nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, fresh and dried fruit, vegetables, sea vegetables and molasses are healthier sources of calcium than dairy products".

Better than dairy products? Why ? Here is the explanation: "Diets that are rich in protein, especially animal protein, are known to cause people to excrete more calcium than normal through their urine and possibly increase the risk of osteoporosis. Countries with low-protein diets have lower rates of osteoporosis and hip fractures". Osteoporosis or brittle bones is the bugbear of old ladies in rich countries consuming loads and loads of animal protein.

But of course, it is not only the medical advocates of vegetarianism who express similar views. As far back as 1987, the conservative American Dietetic Association (ADA) endorsed the health effectiveness of vegetarian diets in decidedly favourable terms. In a position paper published that year and updated in 1992 and 1997, ADA had the following to say about calcium:

"Certain plant constituents appear to inhibit the absorption of dietary calcium, but within the context of the total diet, this effect does not appear to be significant.

Calcium from low-oxalate vegetable greens has been shown to be absorbed as well as or better than calcium from cow's milk. Calcium deficiency in vegetarians is rare, and there is little evidence to show that calcium intakes below the Recommended Dietary Allowance cause major health problems in the vegetarian population.

The relatively high US recommendations for calcium intake, compared with those for populations consuming a more plant-based diet, are designed to compensate for the calciuric effect of high intakes of animal protein, which are customary in the United States. Studies have shown that vegetarians, on the other hand, absorb and retain more calcium from foods than do non-vegetarians".

What is this calci-uric effect ? In their acclaimed publication, The Vegetarian Way (1996),Washington based Mark and Virginia Messina, one a Ph D in Nutrition who has worked in the Diet and Cancer Branch of the US National Cancer Institute, the other the holder of a master's degree in Public Health and a Registered Dietician, explain this in simple terms:

Meat and animal proteins produce a potentially dangerous acid condition in the blood, which the body neutralises in a variety of ways, one of which results in removal of calcium from the bones. The calcium so removed is eventually excreted in the urine.

"In other words, the more milk and meat you consume, the more calcium you need to keep the body in proper calcium balance (i.e., for calcium lost in sweat, faeces and urine to be replaced with calcium from the diet). Hence the authors conclude: "..the idea that people need to consume milk is a myth. Plant foods such as beans, soy products, leafy green vegetables are rich in absorbable calcium. The WHO recognises that people who consume plant-based diets need less calcium. Its calcium recommendations for people in developing countries are about two thirds those for people in the United States".

So that is what it is, or at least what seems to be. For years we have been lacto-vegetarians. Why not experiment on advancing a little further up the road to compassion and better health?.

Index Page
Front Page
Sports Plus
Mirrror Magazine

More Plus

Return to Plus Contents


Plus Archives

Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Plus| Business| Sports| Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Hosted By LAcNet