Don’t I need milk and dairy to strenghten my bones?

This is a question I am asked a LOT in practice. When I am discussing food intolerances to dairy or when I see a little child with chronic ear infections or tonsillitis and suggest to the concerned parent that their little one will feel better without the glasses of milk in their diet the first question is “what about calcium?  don’t we milk for our bones?”

Some people worry that the suggestion is neglectful of their bone health and that we NEED milk.  It’s ok to have had that thought. The dairy board has done a fabulous job with it’s marketing.  I can’t remember if it was a commercial in Canada or from when I was back in Ireland that showed dancing skeletons with music “dem bones, dems bones need calcium! and that’s a natural law.” I sang this for years, the reggae beat reminding me that a pint of milk was the ONLY way to get calcium.  Not true actually. We do not depend on milk or other dairy products for decreasing our risk of osteoporosis, improving our bone health or for our kids to grow healthy and strong. But when all kinds of famous people are in magazines with their white mustaches glued on and a quote from them that “I love milk and so should you” how can you think differently ?

But lets look at some facts:    research is showing that while there is indeed calcium in milk,  we are not able to use it in a way that is helpful to lay down more bone mass. The high amounts of protein in milk actually results in calcium LOSS from bones.  The calcium then has to go somewhere unfortunately and some such places are blood vessels and  kidney stones.

Magnesium is needed for calcium absorption. Without enough magnesium, calcium can collect in the soft tissues and cause one type of arthritis. Not only does calcium collect in the soft tissues of arthritics, it is poorly, if at all, absorbed into their blood and bones. But taking more calcium through daily doses of milk is not the answer; it only amplifies the problem. In fact, excessive calcium intake and insufficient magnesium can contribute to both of these diseases. Magnesium taken in proper dosages can solve the problem of calcium deficiency.

Here is an interesting fact.

In Japan dairy intake has only recently risen to 540 mg per day, much less than the US RDA for post-menopausal women of 1,200 mg per day. And yet the US hip fracture rate is twice that of Japan! In fact, research has shown that countries with the highest calcium intake have the highest hip fracture rates.

Japanese osteoporosis incidence is also lower in Japan but this is not due to genetics as America-born Japanese women have bone mass values equivalent to those of whites.

 It’s not all about Japan either, but this is a country where dairy consumption is low so I like to use it as an example. Their are many other countries where this is also the case.

Here is an article from the National Institutes of Health that came to the conclusion that  :  Scant evidence supports nutrition guidelines focused specifically on increasing milk or other dairy product intake for promoting child and adolescent bone mineralization.

Another study shows that the amount of calcium girls consumed during the teen years had no impact on bone strength. Exercise, however, had a huge positive effect. For strong bones, kids need weight-bearing activity, sunlight, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. And there’s healthy calcium in fortified juices, soymilk, greens, beans, and many other foods that avoid milk’s .

The bottom line is that while we do indeed need to focus on keeping our bones strong and having adequate calcium and other minerals in our diet and other factors as mentioned above, we do not need milk or dairy in general to have healthy bones and teeth. In fact, depending on animal milk solely may indeed be detrimental to our health.

Stay informed, keep questioning, stay healthy and strong !

Vivienne Guy, ND                                                                                                                   Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine