Is Milk Really Bad For Your Bones?
Most of us were taught at a young age that drinking milk builds strong bones, and it’s true that getting adequate calcium from foods is beneficial for skeletal health. However, new research linking high milk intake to increased risk of fractures is raising eyebrows this week.
Although this one study isn’t reason alone to make any changes to your diet, the recent media interest in this topic does present a good opportunity to examine whether you’re doing everything possible to maintain strong bones — and, heads up: Eating calcium-rich foods is just one part of the equation.
Milk and Fracture Risk: Research Is Mixed
The new study, published in the British Medical Journal, examined milk intake and its relationship to risk of bone fractures, death from any cause, and death from cardiovascular disease and cancer in a large group of Swedish men and women. Contrary to what might be expected, among middle-aged and older women, each additional glass of milk consumed daily was associated with a nine percent increased risk of hip fracture and a 15 percent increased risk of death from any cause. Adding an extra glass of milk was also associated with a 15 percent increased risk of death from heart disease.
Among men, however, there was no relationship between usual milk intake and fracture risk. The researchers observed a slight (three percent) increase in death from any cause for each additional glass of milk men consumed.
Interestingly, higher intake of other dairy products — namely cheese and yogurt — was associated with a lower risk of mortality and bone fracture among women.
This study was an observational study, which means it was not designed to prove that drinking more milk actually causes an increased risk of death, fracture, or heart disease. Two previous meta-analyses, which pooled the results of multiple observational studies like this one from several countries, did not find that drinking more milk increased the risk of fractures. That said, they also did not find that higher milk consumption offered any protection against fractures.
The authors of the study urged caution when interpreting these findings, and emphasized that more research needs to be done before considering any changes to current dietary recommendations. The researchers also stated that the results may reflect what is known as reverse causation; the women drinking the most milk may have increased their intake because they had been told by their doctors that they had low bone density or a high risk of osteoporosis, and thus were already at an increased risk of having a fracture.
Eating Well for Strong Bones
If you enjoy and regularly drink cow’s milk, there is no need to change your daily habits based on the results of this one study. But don’t rely on milk alone to keep your bones in good shape.
Getting adequate calcium is certainly important, but in the U.S. especially, we tend to overemphasize the importance of this nutrient for bone health and brush over all the other vitamins and minerals that play a pivotal role in skeletal health. As with any other chronic disease, you absolutely have to look at the whole picture of your diet. Eating more veggies isn’t the only step you can take to reduce cancer risk. Increasing your fiber intake alone, without making other healthy changes, isn’t the optimal approach to heart disease prevention. And drinking milk isn’t a comprehensive dietary prevention plan for osteoporosis and fractures.
In addition to getting adequate calcium, it’s equally important to eat a varied diet rich in whole plant foods to make sure you’re getting all of the micronutrients your body uses to support healthy bones. Follow these strategies to optimize skeletal and overall health at any age:
If you eat dairy products, try to consume a mix of dairy-based foods. Yogurt (minimally sweetened) and cheese (in small portions) may impact health differently than milk, as suggested by the new Swedish study. Rather than guzzling three glasses of milk a day, enjoy a yogurt at breakfast or an ounce of cheese and some fruit as a midday snack. “Solid” dairy foods may also help to fill you up more than fluid milk.
If you don’t eat dairy products, it’s critical to eat a variety of calcium-containing plant foods. These include collard greens, kale, turnip greens, soybeans (edamame), bok choy, broccoli and broccoli rabe, tofu made with calcium, beans, almonds, and, if you choose, calcium-fortified foods (like most soy and almond milks).
Eat plenty of vegetables (including leafy greens), fruits, whole grains, and plant proteins (including beans, lentils, and nuts). These foods provide potassium, magnesium, vitamin K, and vitamin C, nutrients that, like calcium, are important for maintaining good bone structure.
Limit packaged and processed foods, which are typically low in the beneficial vitamins and minerals listed above and often contain high amounts of salt (sodium). A high-salt diet may increase calcium and bone loss over time.
Talk to your doctor about testing your vitamin D levels and taking vitamin D supplements, if necessary. Vitamin D is another critical nutrient for bone health, and it’s difficult to get enough from food.
Don’t take a calcium supplement unless you have reviewed your diet with your doctor or a registered dietitian and have determined that you are consistently falling short of your daily calcium requirement. Exceeding calcium recommendations may increase the risk of kidney stones and even heart problems, and, as with other nutrients, it’s always better to get calcium from food rather than pills.
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