Milk and osteoporosis: are dairy products really good for bones?

Dairy products are the best sources of calcium, and calcium is the main mineral in bones.

For this reason, health authorities recommend consuming dairy products every day.

But many people wonder if they really need dairy in their diet.

This evidence-based review examines science.

Consuming dairy does not make sense from an evolutionary perspective

It's dairy good for your bones

The idea that adult humans "need" dairy products in their diet does not seem to make much sense.

Humans are the only animal that consumes dairy products after weaning and consumes the milk of another species.

Before the animals were domesticated, milk was probably a rare delicacy reserved only for babies. However, it is not clear to what extent the hunter-gatherers sought the milk of wild animals.

Since milk intake was probably rare among adults during most of human evolution, it is safe to assume that humans were getting all the calcium they needed from other dietary sources (1).

However, although dairy products are not necessary in the human diet, that does not mean that they can not be beneficial. This applies especially to people who do not get much calcium from other dietary sources.

Summary Humans have been consuming dairy products for a relatively short time on an evolutionary scale. They are also the only species that consume milk after weaning or of another species.

A quick introduction to osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a progressive disease in which bones deteriorate and lose mass and minerals over time.

The name is very descriptive of the nature of the disease: osteoporosis = porous bones.

It has many different causes and factors that are not related to nutrition, such as exercise and hormones (2, 3).

Osteoporosis is much more common in women than in men, especially after menopause. It significantly increases the risk of bone fractures, which can have a very negative effect on the quality of life.

Why calcium is important

Your bones play a structural role, but they are also the main reservoirs of calcium in your body, which have multiple essential functions in the body.

Your body keeps calcium levels in your blood within a narrow range. If you do not get calcium from your diet, your body removes it from your bones to maintain other functions that are more important for immediate survival.

A certain amount of calcium is continuously excreted in the urine. If your dietary intake does not compensate for what is lost, your bones will lose calcium over time, making them less dense and more prone to breakage.

Summary Osteoporosis is a common disease in Western countries, especially in postmenopausal women. It is one of the main causes of fractures in the elderly.

The myth that protein reduces bone health

Despite all the calcium that dairy products contain, some believe that its high protein content can cause osteoporosis.

The reason is that when the protein is digested, the acidity of the blood increases. Then, the body extracts calcium from the blood to neutralize the acid.

This is the theoretical basis of the acid-alkaline diet, which is based on the choice of foods that have a net alkaline effect and on avoiding foods that are "acid-forming".

However, there really is not much scientific support for this theory.

In any case, the high protein content of dairy products is a good thing. Studies consistently show that eating more protein leads to improved bone health (4, 5, 6, 7).

Dairy is not only rich in protein and calcium, it is also loaded with phosphorus. Fat-filled dairy products from grass-fed cows also contain some vitamin K2.

Proteins, phosphorus and vitamin K2 are very important for bone health (8, 9).

Summary Dairy is not only rich in calcium, it also contains large amounts of protein and phosphorus, all of which are important for optimal bone health.

Studies show mixed results

A few observational studies show that the increase in dairy intake has no effect on bone health or can even be harmful (10, 11).

However, most studies show a clear association between high dairy consumption and a reduced risk of osteoporosis (12, 13, 14).

The truth is that observational studies often provide a mix of results. They are designed to detect associations, but they can not prove cause and effect.

Fortunately, randomized controlled trials (real scientific experiments) can give us a clearer answer, as explained in the next chapter.

Summary Some observational studies show that dairy ingestion is related to a detrimental effect on bone health. However, even more observational studies show beneficial effects.

High quality studies show that dairy products are effective

The only way to determine the cause and effect on nutrition is to conduct a randomized controlled trial.

This type of study is the "gold standard" of science.

It involves separating people into different groups. One group receives an intervention (in this case, it eats more dairy products), while the other group does nothing and continues to eat normally.

Many of these studies have examined the effects of dairy and calcium on bone health. Most of them lead to the same conclusion: dairy products.

  • Childhood: Dairy products and calcium lead to an increase in bone growth (15, 16, 17).

  • Adulthood: Dairy products decrease the rate of bone loss and lead to better bone density (18, 19, 20).

  • Higher: Dairy products improve bone density and reduce the risk of fractures (21, 22, 23).

Dairy products have led systematically to improve bone health in randomized controlled trials in all age groups. That's what counts.

Milk fortified with vitamin D seems to be even more effective in strengthening bones (24).

However, be careful with calcium supplements. Some studies have associated them with an increased risk of heart attacks (25, 26).

It is best to get your calcium from dairy products or other foods that contain calcium, such as green leafy vegetables and fish.

Summary Multiple randomized controlled trials show that dairy products improve bone health in all age groups.

The bottom line

Bone health is complex, and there are many factors related to the lifestyle at play.

Dietary calcium is one of the most important. To improve or maintain your bone health, you need to get adequate amounts of calcium from your diet.

In the modern diet, dairy products provide a large percentage of the calcium requirements of people.

While there are many other foods rich in calcium to choose from, dairy products are one of the best sources you can find.

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