Food as medicine for us and the planet: The protein and calcium myths


Adopting a whole food, plant-based diet not only helps reverse many diseases and improve our long-term health, but it is also good for our  environment. Yet the transition can be difficult. There are two myths that keep many of us from fully committing to this lifestyle, and they  come in the form of these questions: Where will I get my calcium? And where will I get my protein?

Let’s address the calcium issue first. We have been hammered our whole lives by the myth that we must eat dairy products for strong bones, because of all of the calcium that yogurt, milk and cheese contain. Why is this a myth? For one, many other foods contain calcium, and at high levels, including kale, collard greens, figs, oranges and tofu. The calcium in plant-based foods is generally 50 percent bioavailable, compared to the calcium in dairy products, which is only 30 percent bioavailable. That means a cup of raw milk containing 300 mg of calcium would give you 90 mg of calcium, whereas a cup of kale at 245 mg of calcium would give you 122.5 mg. Dr. Amy Lanou, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., states, “The countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis are the ones where people drink the most milk and have the most calcium in their diets. The connection between calcium consumption and bone health is actually very weak, and the connection between dairy consumption and bone health is almost nonexistent.”  

If our bone health is not improved by drinking or eating dairy products, why do we persist in including them in our diet when plant sources are so much better for us? I highly recommend that you take on a fairly easy challenge: try not eating any dairy for 30 days, while eating more greens. You might find the results amazing.

The second myth concerns our need for protein and where we get it if we don’t eat some form of animal protein. All protein originates in plants in the form of amino acids. We need protein (amino acids), but we are told we need a lot more than necessary, probably because the meat and dairy industries are so powerful. The best indicator of how much we need may be the proportion of protein compared to fats and carbohydrates found in human milk.  

The following is a good explanation from Viva, a British charity focused on veganism. “The carbohydrate, protein and fat content of milk from one species is finely tuned to meet the nutritional requirements of that particular animal, whether human, elephant, buffalo, camel or dog. The protein content in 100g of whole cow’s milk (3.3g) is more than double that of human milk (1.3g); this is because the amount of protein in milk is linked to the amount of time it takes that particular species of animal to grow in size. Growing calves need more protein to enable them to grow quickly. Human infants on the other hand need less protein and more fat as their energies are expended primarily in the development of the brain, spinal cord and nerves.”

Humans only need about 2 percent to 5 percent of their daily calories in protein, based on the amount found in human mother’s milk. Mother’s milk nurtures us during the most important time in our development, and is not needed beyond that. As we age, we do not need as much protein to be healthy. But everyone needs different amounts of protein depending on their physical activity.

Probably the best explanation regarding how we use protein can be found in “Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance” by Heidi Skolnik and Andrea Chernus. They write: “The body doesn’t have a large storage depot for protein, as it does for carbohydrate and fat. The protein we eat from food has to be handled as we eat it. Like rookies sitting on the bench waiting for their chance to play, the amino acids in the pool are ready and waiting to be utilized. Either the amino acids are used within a limited time to build a body protein, or they are transformed. If amino acids in the pool aren’t needed to become a protein, the body is equipped to reconfigure them either back to glucose to be used as energy or into fat.” 

The amino acids from plant sources are already broken down and are therefore more immediately bioavailable. This is why vegan athletes report quicker recovery times.

All plants contain protein. A bowl of oatmeal in the morning gives you all of the protein you need for the day. A little nut milk gives you added nutrients, including calcium. It is important to realize that eating animal protein is not the only way to have all of the nutrients and macro-nutrients you require on a daily basis.

The additional benefits of a plant-based diet are summarized in Sid Garza-Hillman’s book “Approaching the Natural,” in which he states: “Americans are mostly a mal-nutrient population, meaning not starving, but deficient in the micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, antioxidants.” Animal products are macro-nutrient foods containing basic vitamins and minerals; our particular focus on protein and calcium takes us away from what is truly essential for optimal health. A plant-based diet provides not only calcium and protein, but also life-promoting micronutrients—everything necessary to live a long and healthy life.


Dave Osborn is a semi-retired contractor and moisture and mold consultant. He has lived in Point Reyes Station for 31 years.