Got Milk or Got Myth? Is Dairy Really Good For Your Bones?

Girl Drinking Milk“Life is great. Cheese makes it better.” – Avery Aames

Don’t get me wrong… I love butter, cream and delicious cheese as much as the next person.

But when I see some well-meaning folks tout dairy (usually low-fat… yuck) as some kind of necessity for bone health I can’t help raising an eyebrow.

So I set out to explore whether dairy really has any part to play.

It’s a good source of calcium, that we know.

But bone metabolism is complex and there’s a lot more than just calcium in there.

Other minerals, vitamins, hormones, dietary factors etc. also play a part and it doesn’t make evolutionary sense that we should need dairy because we didn’t eat dairy after weaning throughout evolution.

So… is dairy really good for your bones or is it just another myth?

A Quick Primer on Osteoporosis

The most common bone disease is osteoporosis, characterized by bone demineralization and deterioration of bone structure.

Osteoporosis = “porous” bones.

Healthy bones contain minerals and proteins tied together in an extremely rigid structure. In osteoporosis, these minerals and proteins deteriorate, the bones become less dense and therefore more likely to break.

Osteoporosis is most common in post-menopausal women and the resultant fractures can have a significant negative effect on quality of life.

The main reason why we would want to keep our bones dense and strong, is to prevent osteoporosis and resultant fractures later in life.

This is a pretty big problem in western countries and may perhaps be considered as one of many diseases of civilization as it is rare in hunter-gatherer populations.

It seems logical enough to associate dairy, the richest dietary source of Calcium, with bone mineral density given that calcium (in the form of calcium phosphate) is the most abundant mineral in bone.

Osteoporotic Bones

Of course, there’s more to dairy than just calcium.

Dairy is a whole food rich in animal protein, phosphorus, Vitamin K2 and various other nutrients that may or may not have an impact on our bones.

Controlled Trials on Dairy Consumption

Luckily for us, this issue has been investigated intensely and multiple randomized controlled trials have explored the effects of dairy consumption on bone mineral density.

In one study published in 1990, pre-menopausal women that added dairy to their diet had much lower rate of bone loss than a control group.

The control group lost 2,9% of bone mass from the vertebrae (bones of the spine) over a 3 year period, while the women who added dairy to their diet maintained their bone mass (1).

Another study published in 1997, this time in adolescent girls, discovered that the group of girls who drank additional milk had increased bone growth compared to a control group who didn’t (2).

Several other randomized trials that look at dairy consumption specifically show significant positive association with bone mineral content, which should lead to a reduced risk of fracture later in life (3, 4).

Basically, it seems that dairy products do in fact build stronger bones.

Despite the promising results of the controlled trials however, there are some observational studies, including the massive Nurses Health Study, that fail to show a positive effect for dairy and calcium consumption on fracture risk (5, 6).

(Of course, randomized controlled trials trump observational studies).

What About Calcium Supplements?

If you prefer to avoid dairy for one reason or another, there is the option to take a calcium supplement.

This has also been studied extensively, and calcium supplements on their own also lead to improved bone density and lower risk of fracture (7, 8).

However, I must warn against the use of calcium supplements because there is some evidence that taking calcium in the form of a supplement can increase risk of cardiovascular disease (9).

For further reading on calcium, dairy and bone health, read this excellent paper by Dr. Robert P. Heaney, one of the world’s leading experts on bone health.

Take Home Message

It turns out that the dairy and bone thing isn’t a myth after all. It has been extensively studied and there is no doubt about it that both calcium supplements and dairy lead to improved bone health.

I personally don’t take a calcium supplement, but I do eat a hefty amount of full-fat cheese at least several times per week. This brings my weekly calcium intake to appropriate levels.

If you’re female, then optimizing your calcium intake among other things, may be important to prevent bone loss and fractures later in life.

I should point out though, that this picture is more complicated than it seems.

For example, countries such as the U.S. which consume a lot of dairy also have a lot of osteoporosis.

And of course… dairy isn’t the only food that contains calcium. Leafy greens, nuts, some types of fish, eggs, etc. all contain a hefty amount.

What I recommend you do is eat a real food based diet that includes all the necessary vitamins and minerals, engage in weight bearing exercise (lift heavy things), optimize your Vitamin D status and generally make an effort to live a healthy lifestyle.

To sum up, yes… dairy appears to be good for your bones, but it is just one part of an extremely complex picture that involves various modifiable lifestyle factors that can impact future bone health.


 

22 Comments

  1. Hahaha, what kind of research did you do? This is a silly article dairy is the devil in a white dress. If you did any kind of research you would find that cows milk is no good for us humans. Why is it that the countries that consume the most amount of milk have the most cases of osteoporosis and the countries that consume the least have the least cases of osteoporosis

    • If you actually read the article you will see that I did my research. Look in the brackets behind the relevant paragraphs to see references to the scientific literature.

      • The studies didn’t seem to indicate if the dairy was consumed with or without fat (unless I missed that?). I would think eating fatty dairy would have good results while eating low-fat or fat-free dairy would be pointless.

        • Some of the studies just used calcium supplements, which are fat free.

          I prefer grass-fed full-fat dairy myself, which is purported to have a high amount of Vitamin K2 which is another benefit. I never touch anything labelled low-fat or fat-free.

          • Kris
            What do you think about Japanese having very low incidences of osteoporosis and related fractures?
            I believe dairy makes up a very minimal amount of their diet.

          • I don’t think dairy is “needed” for bone health, it doesn’t make evolutionary sense.

            But in the context of the western diet it does lead to an improvement. I suppose it partially offsets some other aspect of the diet that is making things worse.

  2. Supplements are not the answer. A well-balanced whole foods diet, sans grains, seed oils, sugars, processed foods, optimal vitamin D3 intake, if no sun is available, lots of healthy saturated animal fats, weight bearing exercise and some dairy if you like milk plus raw cheeses. You’ve done your research Kris.

  3. We are a family of serious milk drinkers, preferably raw, and we drink a lot of it. Actual experience here seems to back up the research. My husband was launched off a tractor in an accident. On the way off, his leg hit the gear shift so hard it bent dense metal. He still bears a dent in his leg from the event, but never broke a bone that should have just shattered.

    • Bev:
      I’m over 60 and live in Canada. I fall on the icy sidewalks and streets several times a year. I’ve fallen on my back. sides, and knees several times and have never broken any bones either.

      • Kateryna,
        Even though it’s not “scientific,” I guess our “research” is just as good as any done in a lab! Cheers!

  4. What evidence is there that osteoporosis has anything to do with calcium intake? and not PH, carbonated beverages, vit D and magnesium deficiency, protein deficiency, or other suggested causes?

    Is the myth a calcium – osteoporosis connection?

    • Well, calcium supplements on their own increase bone mineral density, especially during the first year of intake, so I would say that there is a definite connection.

      I think the other factors you mentioned are important as well.

  5. Kris great article! Toby must not have read the question marks in the title or your last paragraph about the complexity. Raw unpasteurized dairy from properly raised cows, goat, and sheep are a sacred food in many cultures around the world. Could part of the problem in the US be pasteurization? Keith Woodford did some interesting research on A1 vs A2 cattle.
    The Untold Story of Raw Milk by Dr. Ron Schmid
    Devil in the Milk by Keith Woodford.

  6. I would recommend the books “the devil in the milk” and the “China study”!!!

    Plus, there are so many other things to think about regarding dairy! Not just calcium! What about neuropeptides, that cause a lot of problems for lot of people, esp. autistic children, adha, add, and other mental illnesses.

    Ear infections in children, asthma, allergies! So many people have a hard time digesting dairy, and have a lot of symptoms of food intolerance’s, but the mainstream doctors wont acknowledge that!

    Also the connection between cancer and dairy?!

  7. good article kris. i also really enjoy cheese,butter and cream. I love being able to lose weight or stabilise weight and still being able to enjoy these foods. all full fat, of course.

  8. On a personal level I think that “Cow’s milk” is good for 1 being in the world, a calf. We have to “enrich” the milk with vitamins, vitamin D especially, to help absorbtion. Now I’m not saying that milk isn’t good for you, I’m saying that its not “naturally” good for you. Plus I feel that you are right on the money Kris, from an evolutionary standpoint. Drinking milk regularily was not common and there is no evidence that our ancestors kept breaking bones ceaselessly. That being said I like dairy but I tend to consume the minimum “required” amount per day. Its a big debate and you are correct to say, a complex one. In my opinion more research is needed, the jury is still out on this one.

    Have a good one.

    Critter

    • Critter,
      Vitamin D made its way into milk in the 1930′s to help prevent Ricketts in children. Milk does not contain much if any Vit. D naturally. I’m sure the pasteruization process does not help stabilize any Vit. D naturally contained in the milk. Raw milk from pasture fed cattle may be naturally higher in Vit. D, however I don’t know this as fact. I’m making an assumption based on the fact that those cattle are exposed to sunlight while harvesting their daily forage intake, while confinement housed dairy cattle have their entire diet brought to them daily and receive little or no direct exposure to the sun. I believe that milk is naturally good for most people. Agreed, asthma sufferers and others seem to have health improvements when removing/restricting dairy in the diet. I can understand that. Milk is a great source for muscle building and overall nutrition. The bone density benefits alone are worth consuming milk/dairy as I mentioned in a reply above to Kateyrna.

  9. Wenchypoo says:

    What about people allergic to dairy? Are they supposed to NOT supplement to make up for their allergies?

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