Does Milk Make Your Bones Stronger?

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Consuming foods high in calcium is crucial for maintaining healthy bones. But reducing bone loss and osteoporosis risk will take more than just a cold glass of milk. Read on to learn more about milk's role in maintaining strong and healthy bones.
Disclaimer: If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Well Guide contain information from peer-reviewed research, medical societies and governmental agencies; however, these articles are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Got Milk?

If you were alive in the 90s and early 2000s, it’s pretty likely you know exactly what we’re talking about. The 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 from 19 to 50 should get at least 1,000 mg of calcium a day, while 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
  • Legumes
  • Tofu
  • 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% milk contains 309 milligrams of calcium, giving you a hefty amount that goes toward the daily allowance (USDA, 2019).

So, Can Drinking Milk Help Build Bone Strength?

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 that people who drank large quantities of milk a day — 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 and not taken as evidence that milk causes early death. They do, however, support the body of evidence that milk likely isn't the miracle drink it has been touted to be in advertisements, at least in relation to bone health.

The Key to Reducing Bone Loss and Osteoporosis Risk

While drinking 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. One study published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found that people who ate a variety of calcium- and nutrient-rich foods, like fish, nuts, and whole grains, were less likely to experience hip fractures than people who ate a diet filled with red meat (Byberg, 2016).

It’s also a good idea to take vitamins and supplements specifically formulated for bone health, like Vitamin D, and regularly do weight-bearing resistance training exercises

As for milk? Drink it if you like it, but don’t expect it to be a miracle worker.

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  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Calcium and Vitamin D: Important at every age. National Institutes of Health. October, 2018. Accessed April 24, 2022.
  2. Milk, reduced fat, fluid, 2% milkfat, with added vitamin A and vitamin D. FoodData Central. December 16, 2019. Accessed April 24, 2022.
  3. Feskanich D, Willett WC, Stampfer MJ, GA Colditz. Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. Am J Public Health. 1997;87(6):992-7. doi:10.2105/ajph.87.6.992.
  4. Owusu W, Willett WC, Feskanich D, Ascherio A, Spiegelman D, Colditz GA. Calcium intake and the incidence of forearm and hip fractures among men. J Nurt. 1997;127(9):1782-7. doi:10.1093/jn/127.9.1782.
  5. Michaëlsson K, Wolk A, Langenskiöld S, et al. Milk intake and risk of mortality and fractures in women and men: cohort studies. BMJ. 2014;349:g6015. doi:10.1136/bmj.g6015.
  6. Byberg L, Bellavia A, Larsson S, et al. Mediterranean Diet and Hip Fracture in Swedish Men and Women. J Bone Min Res. 2016;31(12):2098-2105. doi:10.1002/jbmr.2896.

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