Restoring the Temple: Is Milk Necessary? Part I
Diane Herbert, ND
In much of Westernized
society, the concept that milk (cow’s milk) is necessary for strong bones is
widespread. From early in life,
children are encouraged to drink their milk by well-meaning parents who have
been taught that milk is the ideal food from which to obtain calcium for
growing and maintaining healthy bones and teeth. As a child grows into a teenager, he or she
is further taught that milk is necessary if a young person wants to grow tall
and excel in sports or any other activity of choice. Then, in adulthood, this person is
encouraged to continue drinking milk to make sure of maintaining those strong
bones, and, especially if that person is a female, she is told that she must
drink milk in order to avoid getting osteoporosis later in life.
However, is all of this true? Is milk the miracle food for bones? In this article we will look at these
issues, as well as take a much broader view of the subject of bone health.
The National Milk Mustache “Got Milk?”
campaign and website target young people, and the public in general, in an
effort to convince them that milk is absolutely necessary for a healthy
diet. Actors and sports stars are
shown with milk mustaches along with their comments about how important milk
is to them and their performance.
Nutritional information is provided, particularly about calcium, and
it is stated that three glasses of any kind of milk will give your body the
calcium it needs. The website even
states that milk is a better choice compared to soda pop, sports drinks, and
However, since this campaign is “funded by
America’s milk processors” and they believe that “America finds itself in a
calcium crisis today because consumers aren’t drinking enough milk,”(1)
it may be wise to look to some other potentially less biased sources of
information that do not have something to gain through increased sales of
Studies are mixed as to whether or not
dairy supports bone health and will prevent osteoporosis. In one study which measured the BMD (bone mineral
density) of 745 men and women more than 60 years old, higher dairy product
consumption was associated with greater hip BMD in the men, but not in the
women. However, calcium
supplementation protected both men and women from bone loss in those whose
dairy intake was low.(2) In
a review of 57 studies of the effects of dairy foods on bone health, 53
percent were not significant, 42 percent were favorable, and 5 percent were
unfavorable. Of 21 stronger-evidence
studies, 57 percent were not significant, 29 percent were favorable, and 14
percent were unfavorable.(3)
The Big Picture
The status of bone health is not limited to
how much dairy a person consumes.
Generally, the underlying premise that increased milk consumption will
strengthen bones is based upon the fact that bones contain a high percentage
of calcium (the biggest reservoir of calcium in the body), and that the more
calcium you consume the more likely your bones will be strong. And since milk contains fairly large
amounts of calcium, all you need to do is to drink your milk, and your bones
will be fine. However, this is a very
narrow view of bone health.
There are a variety of other factors that
influence bone health, and when these are taken into consideration, milk is
no longer the miracle food for bones and, at best, is unessential and, at
worse, a detriment to bone health. In
addition to calcium, bone formation is also dependent upon vitamin D, vitamin
C, vitamin K, and phosphorus. Other
factors include increasing calcium absorption, minimizing calcium loss from
the bones, minimizing calcium loss from the body, and promoting bone strength
through other healthy means.(4)
Milk and dairy products are the best known
sources of calcium, but they are not the only foods that contain good amounts
of calcium. Other sources of calcium
are green and leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, kale, mustard greens, and
turnip greens, sesame seeds, almonds, soymilk, calcium-set tofu, and beans,
such as pinto beans, black-eyed peas, and navy beans.
Many people think that just because they
eat or drink a food with lots of calcium that all of the calcium ingested
will contribute to strong bones.
However, this is not the case.
All sources of calcium have various calcium absorption percentage
rates. For instance, the calcium
absorption rate for milk is about 32 percent.
That means that if you drink one cup of 2 percent milk with 297 mg. of
calcium, only about 95 mg. of calcium is actually absorbed into your
bloodstream for use in your bones.
However, the absorption rate for many green vegetables is 50 percent
or even more, as is the case with broccoli at almost 53 percent and mustard
greens at almost 58 percent.(5)
Along with these plant foods come cancer fighting phytochemicals
and fiber; they are low in hypertensive sodium and artery clogging saturated
fat, and have no heart disease promoting cholesterol. Milk does not have all of these benefits!
Another important consideration is that as
calcium consumption increases, calcium absorption decreases. Thus, just throwing more calcium at your
body does not automatically mean stronger bones. Reducing calcium loss from the bones and
ultimately from the body is very important.
Without minimizing calcium loss, merely consuming more calcium is like
trying to fill a bucket with water that has a hole leaking out a similar
amount of water to the amount being poured in.
A high intake of acid-forming foods, high
intake of sodium, and low intake of potassium all contribute to calcium loss
from the bones and the body.
Acid-forming foods increase the acid load in the body, and the body
responds by releasing calcium, which is alkaline and will neutralize the
acid, from the bones. The foods that
increase the acid load most significantly are all meats, fish, cheese, and
eggs. These items are also low in
calcium, so the resulting calcium balance is much lower, meaning that there
is less calcium in the body than before these foods were eaten. Milk also increases the acid load, but
since it also supplies calcium, the resulting negative calcium balance in the
body is not so great. Some grains,
particularly refined grains, are also acid-forming, but not as much as animal
foods. However, fruits and vegetables
positively affect the body’s calcium balance and minimize calcium
losses. Thus, even though plant foods
appear on nutritional charts to have less calcium per serving, the calcium
that is consumed from them is much more effective in maintaining positive
calcium levels in the body, and the net result is positive instead of
negative. Again, milk is not able to
out-perform plant foods for bone health.(6)
MilkPEP (Milk Processor Education Program).
Internet: http://www.whymilk.com (accessed February 20, 2005).
L. D. McCabe, B. R. Martin, G. P. McCabe, C. C. Johnston, C. M. Weaver, M.
Peacock. “Dairy intakes affect bone density in the elderly.” American Journal
of Clinical Nutrition. 2004 October; 80(4):1066–1074.
R. L. Weinsier, C. L. Krumdieck.
“Dairy foods and bone health: examination of the evidence.” American Journal
of Clinical Nutrition. 2001 March; 73(3):660–661.
Stephen Walsh. “Diet and bone health.” A Vegan Society briefing paper.
January 2002. Internet: http://www.vegsource.com/articles/walsh_diet_bone.htm
(accessed February 20, 2005).
Brie Turner-McGrievy. “Sources of calcium and
calcium balance.” Vegetarian Nutrition. Internet:
http://webct.ua.edu/SCRIPT/1554820051/scripts/serve_home (accessed February
S. A. New. Nutrition New. Nutrition Society Medal lecture. “The role of the
skeleton in acid-base homeostasis.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.
2002 May; 61(2):151–164.
To be continued . . .
Diane Herbert is a naturopath and lifestyle
consultant. She received training from
the NAD Lifestyle Consultant program, Thomas Edison State College, Clayton
College of Natural Healing, and Bastyr
University. Diane teaches health
classes at the Gilead Institute located in Norcross, Georgia, gives health
presentations, and contributes to the Institute’s literature and health flyer
series. She may be contacted by e-mail
January 2007 Table of Contents