How Much Dairy Should Older Adults Have?

Saturday at sunset begins the Jewish holiday of Shavuot–known in English as the Feast of Weeks or Jewish Pentecost. This festival recalls the harvest of the first fruits in the Land of Israel as well as the receiving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.

Over the centuries, the custom has developed to eat dairy products on Shavuot; cheese blintzes and cheesecake are particularly traditional, popular, and tasty. How did this custom develop? There is no single answer. One explanation has to do with a verse from the Song of Songs (4:11), where it states “honey and milk are under thy tongue;” since this book is seen as an allegory of the love between God and the Israelites, the honey and milk are thought to refer to the Torah, whose words are always spoken (by the tongue). Another interpretation is that the journey to Mt. Sinai was so arduous that the Israelites did not bring animals to slaughter and eat–it would have been too much bother–but rather ate only dairy leading up to the Revelation. Yet another explanation is that until the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, there were no laws about what was acceptable to eat (the dietary/Kashrut rules are in the Torah); in order to not transgress God’s will, the people only ate vegetarian and dairy. Whatever reason you like best, it all adds up to a tasty and rich holiday.

I will admit that I usually overdo it a little on Shavuot when it comes to the cheesecake and ice cream. It got me wondering just how much dairy is “right” for older adults. Most sources recommend 3 servings daily (each serving being one cup). It seems like a lot; what is the rationale behind this? As we age, the need for calcium becomes all the more important; it helps us to keep our bones strong. We know that one of the biggest fears of older adults is breaking bones, because the healing process is slower and can lead to complications. When it comes to calcium, there are few sources that pack as much punch as dairy products.

Unfortunately, many older adults have a hard time digesting dairy products. There are also many vegans who do not consume them at all. What alternatives exist to get the proper amount of calcium in their diets? Many non-dairy foods contain calcium: soy products (like tofu, tempeh, edamame), legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils), nuts, seeds, some grains, and other vegetables. There are also some drinks such as oatmilk and orange juice that may come enriched with calcium.

Is the real reason why we eat dairy on Shavuot because God knew that the Israelites would need strong bones to wander for 40 years in the wilderness? There is no way to know for sure, but it is about as plausible an explanation as those put for by Jewish tradition over the generations.

In any case, as we grow older, we must be diligent about maintaining the proper levels of calcium in our diets. Maybe that should be the 11th Commandment!

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