Think You Need Dairy For Strong Bones? Think Again

Want strong bones that minimize your risk for osteoporosis and other bone problems? Drink a few glasses of skim milk and swallow a few calcium tablets. Easy and done, right? Unfortunately, research and experts are now revealing that those two strategies oftentimes create more harm than good.

A different perspective on bone health.

Let me explain: Do you ever wonder why most calcium supplements contain vitamin D? It isn’t because the manufacturer wants to give you a two-for-one supplement special. One meta-analysis evaluating 15 clinical trials and 20,000 patients in the British Journal of Medicine found that calcium supplements without vitamin D could increase your heart attack risk. That next year, a follow-up to a seven-year, 36,282 participant calcium/vitamin D supplementation study found that 54 percent of women used calcium supplements. Why is that a problem? Well, researchers found that even calcium supplements with vitamin D modestly increase your risk of heart problems like cardiovascular disease. What’s more, most over-the-counter calcium supplements come with inferior forms of calcium like calcium carbonate, and a few varieties (including calcium "gummies") contain junk ingredients like added sugar.

What your bones really need.

That isn’t to discount calcium and vitamin D. Calcium plays a role in strong bones (as your body’s most abundant mineral, 99 percent exists in your bones and teeth), and vitamin D helps your small intestine absorb that calcium. But too much can create more harm than good. Excess amounts of calcium—especially without other supporting nutrients—potentially slows down your osteoblasts, which build bones. When that happens, osteoclasts, which break down bone, start running the show, and the results aren’t pretty.

Besides, calcium and vitamin D aren’t the only bone-health players. You also need vitamin K, which helps activate proteins that deposit calcium into your bones and teeth while keeping out of places it doesn’t belong like your soft tissue. Minerals also play a role in bone health. Zinc regulates secreting the bone-supporting hormone calcitonin, while copper monitors osteoblasts and osteoclasts. Beyond getting these and other synergistic bone-supporting nutrients, you need the right balance. Too much or too little of many nutrients could create problems. Take zinc, for example: Researchers find moderately high doses could decrease magnesium balance.

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Why dairy isn't the end-all solution.

Then there’s the dairy problem. Some experts tout milk to get your daily dose of calcium and vitamin D, yet studies show among its problems, dairy can raise insulin levels (due to being high in the sugar lactose) and create acne. Never mind that 75 percent of the world is lactose intolerant. (Although anyone who’s suffered lactose intolerance knows it’s one heck of a reason to skip dairy.)

Dr. David Ludwig argues that "humans have no nutritional requirement for milk, and it may be doing us more harm than good because of all the sugar even plain nonfat milk contains." Milk’s reputation for building strong bones might be slightly exaggerated. Studies show countries that drink the most milk have the highest levels of osteoporosis and the Nurses' Health Study, which tracked 77,761 nurses over 12 years, found the biggest milk drinkers had the biggest bone fracture risk.

While milk provides some calcium, its fortified vitamin D comes as ergocalciferol (vitamin D2), which studies show is poorly absorbed compared to the cholecalciferol (vitamin D3) naturally found in foods like sardines. If you’ve got to have milk, opt for dairy from A2 cows, raw (if you can find it), or organic full-fat milk from grass-fed cows. But you can do just fine without dairy; here are some other ways to optimize bone health:

1. Eat nutrient-rich foods.

It's worth repeating that your bones are made of at least a dozen minerals, plus a few vitamins—including calcium but also magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese, potassium, and vitamins K and D. Awesome bone-supporting foods loaded with these and other nutrients include sardines, leafy greens like collards and spinach, nuts, and seeds.

2. Supplement smartly.

Nutrients work as a team. Magnesium and boron, for instance, support calcium metabolism. Too much calcium could also edge out other nutrients like magnesium, and deficiencies in this mineral increase osteoporosis risk. Along with the right foods, look for professional-formulated bone-building supplements that contain these nutrients in the correct ratios. I recommend a formula that uses the malate and/ or ascorbate forms of calcium and magnesium and meets or comes close to the Daily Value (DV) for these two minerals, such as 400 mg of magnesium and 800 mg of calcium. Keep in mind you will need several capsules or tablets to get optimal amounts of these and other bone-supporting nutrients.

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3. Optimize with these strategies.

Beyond eating the right foods and taking a correctly formulated supplement, optimize bone health with an anti-inflammatory diet (dial up those omega-3-rich foods like wild-caught fish), consistent exercise (especially weight resistance), lowering stress, and getting great sleep. As a "bonus," these strategies provide about a thousand other benefits beyond optimizing bone health including weight loss and reducing disease risk.

Want to go dairy-free? Here's a full day's worth of recipes to help you out.

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