Milk, Calcium & the Bones

In my last blog I talked about the drawbacks of milk consumption. Well, what about the benefits? What about the perks of calcium?  True, milk is a rich source of calcium. However, there is no calcium scarcity in the U.S.  In fact, America nearly tops the list when it comes to per capita calcium intake. Television commercials and ads that tell you otherwise, often with the remedy being three glasses of milk per day, are sponsored by the National Dairy Council. Not exactly a neutral source on the issue.

Bone strength depends on calcium—so the more the better, right? According to Dr. Walter Willett, who chairs the Dept of Nutrition at Harvard, “there is no solid evidence that merely increasing the amount of milk in your diet will protect you from breaking a hip or wrist or crushing a backbone in later years.” This is particularly relevant to those with osteoporosis. While daily calcium recommendations exist (1000-1300 mg/day), it remains unclear what the proper intake is. Interestingly, countries with the highest calcium intake tend to have higher, not lower, hip fracture rates. In a major U.S. study1, women who drank 2+ glasses of milk/day were at least as likely to break a hip or forearm as woman who drank 1 glass/week or less. This was true for men in another major study2. Dr. Willett cautions that all the hype surrounding calcium intake is distracting us from strategies that really work to prevent fractures, such as exercise, certain medications, and (for women) hormone replacement therapy.

Let’s briefly touch on vitamin-D, which is needed for calcium uptake by the body. Most foods don’t naturally contain this vitamin. However, milk and other dairy products are fortified with vitamin-D. Does this underscore the need to consume calcium rich, vitamin-D fortified dairy products? Not exactly. If you live in southern California or other the low latitudes areas (within 40 of equator) and spend reasonable time outdoors (no need to tan!) then you’re getting enough vitamin-D from the sun. For everyone else, a simple multivitamin containing vitamin-D is enough to do the trick. Importantly, these supplements don’t come with the unnecessary saturated fat, galactose, and calories that milk and other dairy products contain.

In summary, milk delivers a lot more than just calcium to the body. And these “other” ingredients are of concern.  Calcium and vitamin-D can be obtained in much healthier ways. In my next blog I’ll highlight a number of foods that are both healthy and rich in calcium to enable you to make some healthy changes!

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                                               Shahir Masri, Sc.D.
                                               Environmental Health Scientist

Studies Cities
  1. Nurses’ Health Study
  2. Health Professionals Follow-up Study