If you were alive in the 90s and early 2000s, it’s likely you know exactly what we’re talking about. This advertising campaign — created in 1993 by the California Milk Processor Board — was designed to reinforce the idea that drinking enough milk equaled strong bones, no matter your age.
But does milk make your bones stronger? The answer is not as straightforward as the celebrity-packed ads make it seem.
Calcium and bone health
The connection between drinking cow's milk and bone health comes down to one thing: calcium.
Calcium is an essential mineral, meaning our bodies need it to survive. It plays a role in the health of your heart, blood and nervous system. Most importantly, we need it to build and maintain bone mass and healthy teeth.
Our bodies don’t make calcium, so we have to get it from food. Otherwise, the body will pull it from our bones to function. Ideally, women between the ages of 19 and 50 should get at least 1,000 mg of calcium per day. Women 51 and older need 1,200 mg (NIH, 2018).
Luckily, there are plenty of calcium-rich foods, including:
- Fatty fish (salmon and sardines)
- Beans and lentils
- Leafy green vegetables (spinach, collard greens, kale, broccoli) and cabbage
- Calcium-fortified drinks (soy milk, almond milk, orange juice)
And, of course, dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and milk are also good sources of calcium. One cup of 2% cow's milk contains 309 milligrams of calcium. That gives you a hefty amount towards your daily allowance (USDA, 2019).
So, does milk actually help your bones?
The connection between milk consumption and bone health is controversial.
Science suggests that milk isn’t necessarily a panacea for bone loss and fractures. Researchers at Harvard University followed 77,000 female nurses for ten years and found that women who drank two or more glasses of milk were no less likely to experience hip or arm fractures than women who drank one glass of milk per week (Feskanich, 1997). A study with male health professionals had similar results (Owusu, 1997).
If that wasn’t concerning enough, a 2014 study showed another downfall of milk. People who drank large quantities of milk — three or more glasses per day — actually had an increased risk of bone fractures and early death (Michaëlsson, 2014).
As is often the case with nutrition research, these results must be interpreted carefully. They should not be taken as evidence that milk causes early death. Instead, they support the body of evidence that milk likely isn't the miracle drink it has been touted to be in advertisements. Especially, in relation to bone health.
The key to reducing bone loss and osteoporosis risk
While milk is often thought of as the best source of calcium, it shouldn’t be the only tool in your fight against bone loss and osteoporosis.
Instead, it’s best to take a multi-pronged approach. Your first step: Adopt a bone-friendly diet.
A study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research tracked people who ate calcium- and nutrient-rich foods. These foods included fish, nuts, and whole grains, which are common in the Mediterranean Diet. The study found that following a Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of hip fractures compared to eating a diet filled with red meat (Byberg, 2016).
Can I get enough calcium without dairy products?
For people who eat little to no dairy, including those who follow a vegan diet or are lactose intolerant, adopting a bone-friendly diet is especially important. While anyone can be deficient in the nutrients that are important for bone health, people who follow these dietary patterns are at an increased risk (Bakaloudi, 2021).
Thankfully, there are many non-dairy foods that contain calcium. Incorporating these foods in one's diet can be a great first step towards improved bone-health. Certain non-dairy milks such as soy or almond milk are calcium fortified, and can be excellent alternatives to regular milk. Certain calcium-rich vegetables and fruits, including kale, broccoli, bok choy, tofu, garbanzo beans, and figs, can also boost your calcium intake.
It is essential to note, however, that compounds naturally found in plant foods, including oxalates and phytates, can lower calcium absorption. For instance, while spinach contains 30 mg of calcium per cup, the actual amount absorbed by your body is significantly less because of these compounds (Shekmbi, 2022).
While dietary calcium is ideal, it is also a good idea to speak with your doctor about whether or not vitamins and supplements formulated for bone health, like Vitamin D, are right for you.
After adopting a bone-friendly diet, remember that certain exercises such as those included in Wellen's workout program, are also crucial to bone health.
As for milk? Drink it if you like it, but don’t expect it to be a miracle worker.