Does Milk Make Your Bones Strong?
After delving into the dark corners of ‘health’ websites and Facebook forums, everyone seems to have a strong stance on whether milk is good for us or not.
It seems that everyone is either convinced it’s a poison or a life-saving white liquor and an area of common contention is the claim that milk is good for our bones.
Where does this claim come from and is there any evidence or research to back it up?
Recent History of the Introduction of Milk
There are many reasons for milk’s growing popularity in recent times with some key moments that solidified it in nationwide usage.
Post First World War, malnutrition was a significant concern. In 1931, a teacher from Tyneside described to parliament how he had seen children die due to malnutrition. In 1937, an investigation by John Boyd Orr revealed that there was a link between low-income, malnutrition and under-achievement in schools.
This led to think-tank style organisations in government to look at how to improve the diet and health of children.
In 1946, the government passed the school milk act, providing free milk to all school children to tackle the malnutrition so prevalent in schools.
This seems like a good and very reasonable solution; milk is a useful source of protein, energy, calcium, phosphate, B vitamins and iodine. Also, in the UK it is very accessible.
Fast forward to the 1970s, which saw milk companies spend vast amounts of money on advertisements to get people drinking more milk.
So is milk needed in 2020?
This question is more pressing when we see the growing incidence of obesity, especially in children. Do we need another calorie-laden drink?
Milk companies claim that milk builds strong bones and, as a result, many of us make this association. I have gathered what research we have and assessed the claim that milk consumption helps us obtain strong bones and wards off osteoporosis (fragile bones).
A meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies and randomised controlled trials found that calcium intake is not significantly associated with hip fracture risk in women or men.
This included in total 170,991 women, 2,954 hip fractures and 68,606 men, 214 hip fractures. This lack of association might be due to the researchers only looking at calcium intake and not milk consumption, which could be different.
Therefore I looked at another meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. This found, when looking at 6 studies, 195,102 women, 3574 hip fractures, that there was no overall association between total milk intake and hip fracture risk (in men, 3 studies, 75,149, 195 hip fractures).
Lastly a prospective cohort study over 22 years of follow-up in more than 96,000 female and 51,529 male health professionals, found that greater milk consumption during teenage years was not associated with a lower risk of hip fracture in older adults.
There was a small study I found that concluded that people who were allergic to milk had higher rates of fracture. I thought I would include this study for balance. Maybe there are additional causes for this finding.
As we can see from the research, milk consumption does not ensure good bone health.
This does not mean milk is bad for us or we should stop consuming it. I think it should be viewed for what it is, a calorie-rich drink that should be enjoyed as a treat and can still be used in cooking and many of my favourite desserts.
Nutritional science is complicated and situational. This means that you cannot always apply one finding and include it for every situation. If your child is struggling to put on weight and is very picky with food then milk might be useful in that particular case. If a child is overweight, having lots of milk might not be advisable.
If you want to keep your bones healthy and ward off osteoporosis, you have to think of your bones a little like we do our muscles. While you have to provide them with nutrients like calcium and vitamin D (which helps with calcium absorption), you can’t assume that is all that’s required.
With muscles, you are not going to suddenly get muscles like a bodybuilder just because you each a lot of protein. Wouldn’t that be convenient!
You have to stimulate your bones, just as you do your muscles, so your body realises it needs to make them stronger. To do this, you need to perform weight-bearing exercises and resistant type training.
This is your best chance to protect yourself against osteoporosis.
Tips to Keep Bones Strong
- Get enough calcium and vitamin D (get some sun!) and eat a well-balanced diet (see picture above)
- Engage in regular exercise
- Eat foods that are good for bone health e.g. fruits and vegetables
- Avoid smoking and limit alcohol to 4-5 units per week
It is crucial to implement these things during adolescence, especially not drinking and smoking due to obvious reasons. This will set children and young people up to have healthy bones later in life.
I hope you’ve found this useful!