Milk and other dairy foods are good for bone health

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Scientific evidence supports the role of calcium and vitamin D for good bone health; Dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium and protein.

A myth which often re-surfaces in media reports is that milk may not be beneficial to bone health. Bone health experts are concerned that this may be causing confusion among the general public and causing many people to avoid milk and dairy foods unnecessarily – when in fact they are among the best sources of bone-healthy nutrients.

First, the facts about calcium: calcium is a major building block of our skeleton; 99% of the 1 kg of calcium found in the average adult body resides in our bones. Bone acts as a reservoir for maintaining calcium levels in the blood, which is also essential for healthy nerve and muscle function. If the body does not get enough calcium it will respond by taking calcium from the bones, thus in turn weakening them.

Here are the facts about dairy foods and calcium supplementation:

  • Dairy products, including milk, are an excellent source of calcium, phosphorus, protein and other nutrients that are important both for bone and overall health.
  • Under-consumption of calcium and vitamin D can lead to negative health outcomes, including osteoporosis and osteopenia. Evidence strongly supports the benefits of dairy products for bone and muscle health. Studies have shown that bone loss is reduced and there is an improvement in muscle mass and strength with adequate dairy intake.
  • Milk and other dairy foods are the most readily available sources of calcium. Some non-dairy foods also contain calcium. These include certain vegetables (e.g. broccoli or kale); whole canned fish with soft edible bones such as sardines; some nuts; calcium-set soy products (tofu, soy milk); and some mineral waters. It is important to note that people would need to eat numerous servings of kale or broccoli or other non-dairy foods to get the equivalent amount of calcium provided by just one serving of yoghurt, cheese, or milk.
  • For children, who often avoid green vegetables, dairy products are often the preferred source of calcium and protein – both essential nutrients for growing bones.
  • In some countries, milk is also fortified with vitamin D, which is an added benefit to bone health. Vitamin D is an important ‘partner’ for calcium as it is essential for the absorption of calcium in the intestine. 
  • IOF and other leading organizations recommend that calcium needs be met through food sources when possible. Foods containing calcium (such as dairy foods, nuts, certain fish and vegetables) should be part of a healthy, balanced diet. For people who cannot get enough calcium through their diets, supplements may be beneficial. These should be limited to 500-600 mg per day and it is generally recommended that they be taken combined with vitamin D.
  • Certain diseases affect how much calcium is absorbed by the body i.e. Crohn’s, coeliac disease, lactose maldigestion and intolerance. People with these conditions may need supplementation, if recommended by their doctors.
  • New studies have diffused concerns about calcium supplementation, showing that  reports of increased cardiovascular risk due to calcium supplementation are not convincingly supported by current evidence (e.g read this report). If you’ve been advised by your doctor to take calcium and vitamin D supplements because you have weak bones or because you are deficient in these nutrients, you should continue to take them. Speak to your doctor if you have any concerns.

If you’re worried that you do not have adequate calcium intake, try the IOF Calcium Calculator to find out how you can boost your calcium intake. Remember, calcium recommendations vary worldwide, with recommended daily intake based on age and gender. 

For more information:

> Fact sheet on Dairy foods and bone health 
> Nutrition and Bone Health Throughout Life