Is milk a good source of calcium?

As kids we were always told “Drink your milk!” but now it seems that, if it was good strong bones and teeth we were after, we may have been misled. Dairy may be high in calcium, however for a number of reasons, it might not be the best source of calcium. Furthermore it is now a known fact that calcium is not all we need for good strong bones.

Consider firstly where dairy comes from

Like much of the food we eat today, ordinary conventional milk is a processed food – pasteurised and homogenized. But even long before it comes out of the cow, that cow is subject to all kinds of drugs on a regular basis to keep it healthy in an unhealthy confined area, never setting eyes on a field of green grass. This is especially true of the big commercial dairy farms where cows are often genetically manipulated, injected with hormones, including bovine growth hormone (BGH) and estrogens. They may be regularly treated with excessive antibiotics and fed an unnatural diet (usually genetically-modified corn or other grains). All these factors affect mainstream dairy’s nutritional profile and have digestive implications for humans. However let’s get back to the original question which asks if milk will meet calcium requirements for bone health?

Follow the research

To find answers one need not look much further than a review done in 2020 by Walter C. Willett, M.D., Dr.P.H., and David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D , which they called Milk and Health. This review summarizes the evidence for the benefits and possible risks associated with consumption of cow’s milk. In it the authors describe the relationship of milk consumption to not only the risks of fracture, but also of obesity, cardiovascular disease, allergies, and various cancers. However it is only the risk of fractures that we are interested in here ie is milk good for our bones? From a meta-analysis of a large number of studies the researchers concluded: Existing data do not support high intakes of milk during adolescence for prevention of fractures later in life and suggest that such intakes may contribute to the high incidence of fractures in countries with the greatest milk consumption.

This was no surprise to Willet as in part of his 2003 Harvard Nurses Study, in which 72,337 women participated, investigators analysing 18 years of data on dietary intake of calcium (dairy and supplements) came to the conclusion that drinking milk does not prevent osteoporosis and associated hip fracture risk.  As a matter of fact, just the opposite was found to be true for women. Women consuming greater amounts of calcium from dairy foods suffered significantly increased risks of hip fractures.

Reasons why milk fails

For one, you may be surprised to hear that although dairy products have a high calcium content, they actually deplete the body of both calcium and magnesium. The ideal calcium to magnesium ratio is 2:1 – ie you need twice as much calcium as magnesium. Milk’s ratio is 10:1, while cheese is 28:1. Relying on dairy products for calcium could lead to magnesium deficiency and imbalance, a situation which is particularly undesirable since magnesium is essential for regulating calcium metabolism. More alarming is that magnesium has actually been found in many other studies to contribute more than calcium to achieving and maintaining good bone density: so why kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

Secondly, dairy is acid-forming. Bones break because, by eating the wrong foods, we create an acid condition in our bloodstreams, which must be neutralized by available calcium. The body achieves balance by taking calcium out of its own bones. The problem with dairy is that it takes more calcium to buffer its acid content than what you actually receive from the dairy. So high dairy consumption can deplete the body of calcium and cause you to continue to lose bone mass .

And then there is the damage done by processing.  Conventional  dairy products have been pasteurised, a process which destroys the phosphatase enzyme necessary for the assimilation of calcium. Sometimes it is skimmed, homogenised and otherwise processed and adulterated, further degrading the calcium and rendering it even more difficult for the body to absorb.

Healthier sources of calcium

calcium rich foods

It is good to know that we can get all the calcium we need from a healthy, balanced whole food diet. Fruits and vegetables supply the best source of absorbable calcium, because they contain all the necessary co-factors to calcium absorption and metabolism.  Seeds and nuts, especially almonds, are great too and eggs, fish (canned salmon with the bones is good) and meat, can yield sufficient daily calcium intake. An added bonus would be that you may be avoiding  the problematic health conditions and degenerative diseases to which dairy products may contribute. (These for another story)

green food powder supplement

What about calcium supplements?

If your diet is right then calcium supplements should not be necessary. If you wish to take a supplement then be sure it is an organic plant-based one. Green food formulas are best, otherwise calcium acetate or calcium citrate, always given with magnesium. Calcium carbonate (chalk) is used most extensively yet it is the least desirable form. Its inorganic nature makes it less digestible and can result in calcium dumping in the wrong locations such as arteries, kidneys and joints. It’s quality that counts, not quantity. You may ingest kilograms of calcium pills yet in the end your body may still have less available calcium than if you had eaten one piece of broccoli.

Conclusion

If you must have milk, drink only raw milk from cows that are grass fed. And only in moderation. There’s nothing wrong with a periodic glass because you like it. But there’s very little evidence that most adults need it. There’s also very little evidence that it’s doing us much good let alone meeting our calcium requirements.

Subscribe to our news letter.

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

Orchards Nutrition will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.