The Milk Myth, Does Milk Really Make Strong Bones?

A popular old car ad used a catchy theme song to put forth the notion that the Chevrolet automobile brand was as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. While it wasn’t included in the ad, what goes better with apple pie than milk? And how much more Americana can milk be?  Fast forward a few decades and milk has not only achieved that same All-American status, but it has also utilized successful advertising (Got Milk? and “Milk Moustache” ads) to elevate itself to iconic status. 

Today, milk may be facing another crossroads as some experts in the health industry are saying Americans are not only getting plenty of milk, we may get too much, and not enough of the other vitamins and substances we need for good bone health.

According to a recent Alternative Medicine online article, the highest rates of bone fractures occur in the more industrially advanced countries like the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and most of those in Western Europe, despite the fact that their citizens consume the most dairy products per year. Conversely, Asian and African countries’ citizens consume little or no milk, few dairy products, and hardly any calcium or calcium supplements. Yet their rates of fractures are 50-70% lower than the biggest dairy consuming countries. Want further food for thought? Four international epidemiological survey results’ show that the countries consuming the most calcium also have the highest percentages of hip fractures.

Some recent research results show that human bones need more than calcium only. There are many other bone health factors at play; from the manner, we eat to stress levels, activity, and lifestyles. These can all contribute to bone depletion, and that remains true even with those who take calcium supplements and/or drink more milk. An assistant professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville reviewed 1,200 studies on dietary risk factors for osteoporosis and came to the conclusion that the calcium theory doesn’t hold a lot of “milk”. In fact, she says that the more effective alternative to increasing bone health and decreasing osteoporosis risk is a low-acid diet.

Giving the Calcium Creed a Hip Check

One of those epidemiological studies correlated rates of hip fractures reported with the total amount of vegetable and animal proteins consumed by various countries. The results showed that hip fracture rates increased as animal food consumption increased.

Approximately 135 trials conducted since 1975 have probed calcium’s effects on osteoporotic fracture risks and two-thirds of those trials showed that high calcium intake has no lessening effect on the number of fractures, even among those people taking Vitamin D throughout their childhoods. One study conducted by Harvard University focused on diets and hip fractures among 73,000 women over an eighteen-year period. Researchers concluded that increased intake of milk did NOT appear to reduce the risk of fractures. Another Harvard research group analyzed data from 170,000 people and reached the same conclusion.

Now, this is not to say that your body doesn’t need calcium. It does. Yes, it does have a key role in supporting bone and teeth structure and function. That is presumably where the long-held emphasis on consuming more dairy products originates, as dairy foods are high in calcium. Yes, calcium is necessary, like concrete blocks in the structure of a building, but you also need mortar and wood and plaster and other materials in the construction and maintenance of that structure. So perhaps while calcium is crucial, the mistake has been over-emphasizing it to the detriment or de-emphasis of other necessary nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.

Dietary Catch-22: A New Bone-Healthy Diet

Those materials like mortar and wood come from other foods such as fruits and vegetables, and a high-protein diet rich in meat, fish, milk , and dairy, and poultry, in particular, seems ideal to acidify our blood and achieve a pH level that’s slightly alkaline to help the body function properly and at a high level. Since protein is made up of amino acids, consumption of protein floods our bloodstreams with them. Since our bodies have to neutralize the acids to maintain a proper pH level and avoid problems like osteoporosis, our bodies draw upon its own reserves of alkaline material. One of the primary reserves comes from the calcium stored in bone. Thus, the more protein we ingest, the more acidic our blood becomes and the more our bodies draw from calcium already in our bones and teeth. So here’s the ironic part: Dairy products also happen to be acidic, so the more milk you drink, for instance, the more you cause your body to suck calcium from your bones to regulate pH and also cause osteoporosis in the process.

So what to do with what seems like a dietary Catch-22? The answer may lie with fruits and vegetables, which both contain proteins that keep us healthy, but their protein counts are much lower, so a smaller amount of acid enters the bloodstream once consumed. Since the consumption of these foods also triggers a higher amount of alkaline material that neutralizes the lesser amount of acid, the body doesn’t have to leech calcium from the bones and teeth to balance pH.

The Calcium Contradiction

While fracture studies mentioned earlier show calcium intake may not prevent breaks in our bones, bone-mineral density (BMD) research shows that it does slightly improve BMD. This contradiction may be best explained as follows: Strong, break-resistant bones need a BALANCE of calcium AND 16 other nutrients. While calcium improved BMD in 52% of the studies focusing on just calcium, fruits and veggies improved BMD in 85% of more than 100 studies on these foods.

So rather than throwing the baby out with the milk, er, bath water, the solution to this calcium quandary may be as simple as tweaking our dinner division on the plate.

Think of your dinner plate as four parts and make meats/poultry/fish just one of those quarters. Use the other three for fruits and vegetable to better balance out acids and alkaline, and thereby your body’s pH level during and after digestion. Since it takes three servings of fruits and veggies to neutralize the amount of acid in one serving of meat — and two servings of fruits and veggies to neutralize one serving of grains food, it’s a great idea to bump up your level of fruits and vegetables intake daily — as much as five times more considering the average American only eats veggies and fruits once a day, if that.  A final recommendation is to go without meat at least one day per week.

Finally, it should come as no shock that other factors come into play as well, and engaging in regular exercise, taking Vitamin D as well as antioxidants like blueberries.

There are also several things to cut back on or avoid outright that will also have a beneficial effect on bone health, such as limiting caffeine consumption to one or two cups of coffee a day, not averaging more than one alcoholic drink a day (for women) or two per day (for men), quitting smoking, and limiting as much as possible the use of prescription drugs.

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