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Does Milk Benefit Bones?

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It’s a fact—humans need calcium and vitamin D to build strong bones. And drinking milk that’s fortified with vitamin D is an easy way to get those nutrients. But does that mean drinking milk will help prevent osteoporosis-related fractures?

If you follow the health news, you may have noticed a report from researchers in Sweden; they reviewed data from more than 100,000 adults and found that drinking three glasses of cow's milk a day did not lower the risk of fracture, and was associated with an increased risk of premature death. The report follows the publication of a commentary co-authored by Dr. Walter Willett, a well-respected nutrition scientist. In the piece, which was published in JAMA Pediatrics, Dr. Willett and his coauthor challenge the government’s advice on milk con- sumption for adults and children. What’s more, some research suggests that consuming a lot of milk and other dairy products may be associated with an increased risk of prostate and ovarian cancers.

If you are at risk for or have osteoporosis, you may be wondering if there’s any good reason to drink milk. Here’s a look at the controversy—and our advice.

A rational recommendation?

The U.S. government, in its Dietary Guidelines for Americans, has long recommended 3 cups (8 oz.) of milk a day for adults. The rationale: Milk provides a wealth of nutrients, including calcium and vitamin D, making it important for bone health. In recent years, the guidelines have recommended fat-free or low-fat milk over whole milk due to concerns about the cardiovascular risks associated with saturated fat.

But Dr. Willett and his co-author contend that the recommendation for 3 cups daily—an amount that comes close to supplying the recommended intake of 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium a day for adults—is not based on solid scientific evidence. They argue that, in an evolutionary context, animal milk is a fairly new and unnecessary addition to our diet. Indeed many populations throughout the world today consume little or no milk for biological reasons (lactase deficiency), lack of availability or cultural preferences. And, paradoxically, bone fracture rates tend to be lower in countries that do not consume milk compared with those that do.

Findings from the Swedish study, which was reported in The BMJ, cast further doubt on the role of milk in fracture prevention. The researchers followed 61,433 women, who were age 39 to 74 at the start of the study, on average for 20 years; the 45,339 men in the study were ages 45 to 79 at the start, and they were followed for an average of 11 years. Over the years, the participants completed questionnaires about the foods they consumed, as well as how frequently they consumed them.

The researchers found that consumption of at least three glasses of milk each day (a total of 21 oz. or more) was associated with an increased risk of fracture in women and did not lower fracture rates in men. In addition, women who drank three glasses or more daily had a 93 percent increased risk of dying prematurely compared with women who drank less than one glass per day; men had a slightly increased risk of premature death. The researchers suggested that a compound called galactose found in milk could be to blame: When given to lab animals, galactose promotes premature aging, a shortened life span and chronic inflammation.

To drink or not to drink?

If fracture prevention is your goal, the evidence suggests that drinking milk is not sufficient. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t drink it. Even Dr. Willett believes it’s OK to do so; he’s questioning the blanket recommendation for 3  cups per day for most people.

And what about the prostate and ovarian cancer risks associated with milk? While some studies support this, many others have found no increased risk.

Finally, should you be concerned about the increased risk of premature death reported by the Swedish group? The authors themselves advise interpreting their results with caution. That’s because in observational studies such as this one it’s virtually impossible to establish cause and effect. In this case, the findings are based on participants’ reports of their milk intake, which may not be reliable.

The bottom line

If you like milk, pour yourself a glass or two. If you don’t like or can’t tolerate milk, there’s no reason to feel guilty about not drinking it. You can meet your needs by consuming a variety of other foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D, including salmon and fortified orange juice.

Measures you should take to reduce your fracture risk include not smoking, limiting your alcohol intake and regularly performing resistance exercises to strengthen your bones and balance exercises to lower your likelihood of falling. In addition, if you’re at increased risk for a fracture, talk to your doctor about bone-boosting medications. Unlike milk, some have been proven to reduce the risk of various types of fractures. 


Posted in Osteoporosis on April 13, 2016

Medical Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Click here for additional information: Health After 50 Disclaimer

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The "caveats" to this study report would be the quality of the milk consumed, which could alter the results. Industrial milk in lieu of raw or low heat pasteurized milk.

If the commonly available industrial provided milk is the milk being studied ( i.e. big batch, high heat pasteurization, & added back vitamins) assumes it has the equivalent quality of raw milk but that may not be accurate. I would value a study that compares the two types of milk: industrial / commercial compared to raw milk that contains it's natural components (not added or fortified).

I would indeed be leary of consuming commercial milk in quantity due to the alterations it has been subjected to. This report appears to support that concern.


Further in-depth studies reviewing the effects of raw or low-heat pasteurization would be of value. Real milk from cows that have not been given any products (hormones) to increase their output. Milk that has not had it's components stripped out and then added back artificially. Milk that has not been "super-heated" to extend it's shelf-life. Today, commercial milk is NOT the same milk that we consumed over the last 10,000 years.

Another interesting component to study would be A2/A2 milk compared to A1/A1 milk, a genetic mutation that appears to have occurred between 5-10,000 yrs ago. (A2 being the older and A1 the mutation). It has been suggested that A2 milk appears to pre-digest the lactose making it easier to absorb (avoiding the lactose-intolerance issues). Genetically we would utilize A2 milk more effectively, in theory.

(A1 and A2 beta-casein are genetic variants of the beta-casein milk protein that differ by one amino acid. As a food source, casein supplies amino acids, carbohydrates, and the two inorganic elements calcium and phosphorus.)

UC Davis now offers inexpensive testing for dairy cows, to identify the variants. Unfortunately the A2 commercial producer, in the USA, ultra-pasteurizes it's milk, probably destroying important comments in the milk, in order to prolong shelf life.


The crux of the matter, I think, is whether or not highly processed foods are utilized by our bodies as quality food sources. Not that an industry built on industrial food volume would want to know the results, as it may impact their profit margins.

Organic Farmer, RNC, NP Women's Health Diabetic Educator

Posted by: AmyD | April 13, 2016 11:07 AM

In addition to the post regarding how heat treatment may influence milk nutrition (and digestion) and ultimately skew results, the animal feed may also confound results. Grass fed cows have been shown to produce milk with more Omega 3 compared to conventionally raised cows. In addition, if heavy metals, glyphosate, or other pesticides are in the feed of conventionally fed cows, then milk contaminants may also skew data.

When comparing other cultures' health and bone density with the US, other lifestyle factors must also be considered: Consumption of processed food, and other dietary patterns, US agricultural practices, exercise patterns, chemical exposure, stress and sleep patterns, etc.

Posted by: JYoung | April 13, 2016 7:39 PM

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