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Milk, Calcium, Osteoporosis and Cancer Connection
(Part 2 of 3 on Milk)

Louis Pasteur

When I say calcium, do you think of milk? It's an association that years of advertising has driven into our heads. We're taught that we need to get enough calcium to build strong bones. If we don't, we're at risk of developing osteoporosis.

(Dictionary.com defines osteoporosis as, "a disorder in which the bones become increasingly porous, brittle, and subject to fracture...")

Osteoporosis and Milk

Evidence now suggests that may not be entirely correct. In a 12-year study of 77,761 women who had never used calcium supplements, they found that there were no differences in bone fractures between the women who drank two or more glasses of milk a day versus women who consumed one or fewer glasses a week. In fact, women didn't see any bone strengthening benefit from higher consumption of ANY food sources of calcium.

The first time I read the results, I was astonished. How could drinking more milk NOT help with bone health?

Milk, dietary calcium, and bone fractures in women: a 12-year prospective study. By: D Feskanich, W C Willett, M J Stampfer and G A Colditz; Channing Laboratory, Boston, Mass. 02115, USA.

After digging deeper into the studies, the problem didn't appear to be milk, but rather protein. It turns out, for each gram of protein you eat, you lose 1.75 milligrams of calcium. Societies with the highest consumption of protein in their diet also have the highest rates of osteoporosis. All the protein we're eating in America must be causing the problem! So I decided to check the math.

A single cup of milk has 8 grams of protein. That means drinking it would cause a person to lose 14 milligrams of calcium. However, that same cup of milk holds 300 milligrams of calcium, so you're actually getting a net benefit of 286 grams of calcium. The amount of protein consumption, even if a person eats 170 grams of protein daily, doesn't reach high enough levels to cause serious calcium loss. Drinking one cup of milk a day would completely replenish it.

So if excess protein isn't causing the problem, what is? Most research points to a lack of exercise. The more "advanced" a society becomes, the less physical work individuals have to engage in.

Studies now show that the most important thing you can do for bone health is, exercises that require "...high forces and/or generate high impacts..." That means unloaded exercises like swimming aren't going to help. But, "Exercise involving high impacts, even a relatively small amount, appears to be the most efficient for enhancing bone mass..." The problem isn't too much protein, it's too little exercise.

You can still drink milk. Not because of the calcium, but all the other things it provides that are good for you. Milk is a good source of phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin D and potassium; all elements associated with good bone health. But if you really want to avoid osteoporosis, weight-bearing exercises are the way to go.

Exercise and bone mass in adults. By: Guadalupe-Grau A, Fuentes T, Guerra B, Calbet JA; Department of Physical Education, University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain.

Exercise interventions to reduce fall-related fractures and their risk factors in individuals with low bone density: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. By: de Kam D, Smulders E, Weerdesteyn V, Smits-Engelsman BC; Department of Rehabilitation, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre, Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

If you're looking for alternate sources of calcium, there are plenty of places to get it. You'll find calcium in baked beans, many breakfast cereals, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens and tofu made with calcium sulfate. You don't have to drink milk, it's just convenient.

Click Here for a complete article on calcium.

Cancer and Milk

Then there's the whole cancer angle. One of the strong anti-cow's milk arguments is that, "Increased dietary protein, including from milk, can elevate serum concentrations of insulin-like growth factor 1, which has an unknown relation to cancer." There was also concern that milk can increase prostate cancer by reducing a potent anti-prostate cancer hormone.

When the results came in, both concerns were dismissed. "Overall, evidence suggests that being a lacto-vegetarian has greater health benefits and reduced health risks than being a vegan." And that anti-prostate cancer hormone? Local production of that hormone is independent of diet, so milk can't suppress it.

Drinking cow's milk won't give you cancer, but it won't do much for your bones either. Yes, it's a good source of calcium and protein, so it's a perfectly reasonable thing to drink. Just don't expect miracles if you do. Like any food or drink you should take it in moderation, as part of a balanced diet.

Should dairy be recommended as part of a healthy vegetarian diet? By: Weaver CM.; Department of Foods and Nutrition, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, USA.

UPDATE:

Drinking three or more glasses of milk a day, may actually be HARMFUL. In a remarkable study carried out by Swedish researchers, they found that women who drank three or more glasses of milk a day were nearly twice as likely to die as those who drank less than one, if all other things are equal.

The suspicion is that there's a problem with the sugar D-galactose that's found in milk that may trigger chronic inflammation. Women who got their dairy from cheese, yogurt and other fermented milk products didn't have the same risk factors.

Strangely, they found the risk seemed only to apply to women, not men. And the women did NOT have higher incidences of factures or lethal cancers.

The study was carried out at Uppsala University and the coauthor is Karl Michaelsson. The data came from 20 years of health data and included more than 60,000 adult women.

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5/2/2010
Updated 6/6/2012
Updated 12/17/2014