When you hear the word calcium the first things that probably pop into your head are:
Protection of Osteoporosis
The irony is that when you do a little bit of research, you will uncover that dairy products have little effect on any of the above mentioned. This is backed by some pretty credible data. Before we get into the data, it's important to realize that in the US, we are constantly marketed to by those who benefit from the sales of dairy products and have strong government affiliations such as the Dairy Council. The milk ads, text book information, school handouts, nutrition pamphlets, and even scientific research are all backed by organizations such as the Dairy Council.
It's also interesting to notice that vegan diets tend to be criticized for not being able to reach calcium intakes due to high recommended amounts and low bioavailability. Yes, the amounts are high, about 1,000 mg per day according the the latest adequate intakes, but the World Health Organization, who in my opinion is more credible and less biased, only suggest 500 mg per day to be adequate. The 1,000 mg level also takes into account the high animal protein diets of most Americans which actually leaches calcium from the bones. As far as bioavailability (the amount your body can absorb) of calcium, dairy products have a 32% absorption rate, while plant foods have much higher absorption rate such a brussel sprouts at 63.8% and kale at 58.8% (1).
Now on with the scientific data. Not only did a 2005 study in Pediatrics show that milk consumption did not improve bone integrity in children (2), but even more astounding is a Harvard Nurses' Health Study that tracked over 72,000 women for 18 years and found no protective effect on bone fracture risk (3). It has actually been noted that exercise, especially weight bearing, has a much greater impact on bone density and protection against fractures at any age.
Dairy products are also high in saturated fat, inhibit iron absorption which can lead to anemia, contain various toxins such as pesticides and drugs, and have been linked to chronic disease including type II diabetes, prostate and breast cancer. As for Vitamin D, get 15 minutes of sunshine daily, or take a supplement (most multivitamins have you covered). So, if the only thing holding you back from going vegan is your addiction to dairy, give it up, it's not good for us or the animals.
2. Lanou AJ, Berkow SE, Barnard ND. Calcium, dairy products, and bone health in children and young adults: a reevaluation of the evidence. Pediatrics. 2005;115(3):736-43.
3. Feskanich D, Willett WC, Colditz GA. Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77(2):504-11.