Parents have always told children to drink their milk so they’ll grow taller and stronger.
Milk advertisements also advocate the importance of milk for healthier bones and to prevent osteoporosis, the weakening of bones.
However, some will disagree on these purported benefits of milk. In fact, they argue that drinking too much milk and other dairy products does not have a big effect on our bone health, and actually contributes to heart problems or prostate cancer.
So who do we believe? Let’s start with what we currently know about calcium and its effects on the body.
What is calcium?Calcium is a mineral that helps the body perform its different functions. Our body needs calcium to build and maintain our bones and teeth, to prevent blood clotting, to transmit nerve impulses, and to regulate the heartbeat. Calcium is one of the building blocks of our body; 99% is found in our body and teeth and 1% is found in the blood and other tissues.
Where do we get calcium?There are two ways for our bodies to get calcium. One is eating foods or supplements rich in calcium like milk and other dairy products. To maximize calcium’s benefits in our bodies, combine it with enough magnesium and vitamins D and K.
Another source of calcium is from our bones themselves. When blood levels of calcium decrease, our body pulls the calcium it needs from our bones. We may try to replenish the “borrowed” calcium later through calcium-rich food, but this solution may not work all the time.
Facts about our bonesBones are living tissues that constantly break down and builds up again through the process of remodeling. If you get enough calcium and exercise, bone production is greater than bone destruction but only until the age of 30. After that, bone destruction exceeds bone production.
What is osteoporosis?An imbalance between bone production and bone destruction lead to the weakening of bones, called osteoporosis. Having a high calcium intake before the age of 30 may be a good foundation, but bone loss still cannot be prevented in later life. Aging, genetic factors, lack of exercise, and lower levels of circulating hormones result in bone loss. Other risk factors are smoking and drinking alcohol.
According to the NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center, more than 40 million people in the United States already have osteoporosis or are at high risk because of low bone mass. Both men and women can suffer from it at any age, but it is more common on older women.
How do we prevent osteoporosis?Bone loss can be slowed down by eating a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D and K, exercising regularly, and avoiding smoking and alcohol. Good sources of calcium are dairy products such as low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese. We can also take foods with added calcium such as orange juice, cereals, and breads.
How good is milk?We often think of milk as a great source of calcium. While this is true, milk is just one of many sources of calcium. And for some people, milk may not be an appropriate choice due to lactose intolerance, the high saturated fat content of dairy products which may lead to heart diseases, and increased risk of ovarian and prostate cancer.
Recommendations for healthier bonesThe National Academy of Sciences presently recommends an intake of 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day for people ages 19 to 50, and 1,200 milligrams for those over 50. Drinking two to three glasses of milk will give up to 1,200 milligrams of calcium or taking calcium supplements may also be an option.
However, these recommendations are based on short-term studies and may be higher than what our bodies actually need. Because of the risk of ovarian and prostate cancer, it may be wise to avoid higher intakes of calcium.
For people who are lactose intolerant and cannot digest milk, they can opt for dark, leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, dried beans, and legumes. Orange juice and soy milk with added calcium are also good for the bones.
If taking calcium supplements, have them with vitamin D. Some studies suggest that taking calcium-only supplements may increase the risk of bone fractures and heart attacks.
This article was contributed by Madison Gallagher from Autocam Medical, an award-winning manufacturer of orthopedic medical devices to promote bone health.