The Milk Myth

At school I remember learning cows give us milk, milk gives us calcium and calcium makes our bones strong and healthy. Television ads aired each day reminding me of milks calcium-rich content. A glass of milk a day appeared all around me as the picture of health. Nutrition Australia even recognises cow’s milk as the largest contributor of calcium to the Australian diet.

Would you believe me if I told you milk is anything BUT a reliable source of calcium? In fact, milk actually depletes the calcium in your bones.

There is a global milk myth that has fooled us all.

Our bodies need calcium to form and maintain healthy bones and teeth. It’s true that milk is calcium-rich, with one cup of milk containing approximately 300mg of calcium. Cheese, yoghurt and other milk by-products also contain high levels of calcium. With this in mind you might be wondering, how the hell is milk not a reliable source of calcium? Let me explain…

Firstly, dairy milk is acidic so when we drink milk it acidifies the body’s pH levels. When the body’s pH levels are out of whack, calcium works as an effective acid neutraliser. Bones have the greatest storage of calcium in the body, so this is where it is drawn from.

I know, it’s a little confusing. Our bones and teeth store ninety-nine percent of the body’s calcium, so this is where the calcium is drawn from, consequently lowering calcium levels. Although some calcium may be absorbed by the body, an overall increase in calcium levels is quickly counteracted by this acid-neutralising process. It’s a catch 22.

This isn’t information that some hippy-dippy vegan came up with to make milk look bad. It’s cold hard facts.

We just want milk that taste like it has actual health benefits.

A 1994 Sydney study conducted over 18 years found a strong correlation between drinking milk an increases in the risk of bone fracture, with the highest milk consumption doubling the risk. Twenty years later, a long-term study conducted by Uppsala University in Sweden was published comparing milk consumption against bone health. The study’s lead researcher Professor Karl Michaelsson commented “I’ve looked at fractures during the last 25 years. I’ve been puzzled…because there has again and again been a tendency of a higher risk of [bone] fracture with a higher intake of milk”.

Other studies have found no correlation. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Bone and Mineral Research found from a study of over 150,000 men and women there was no overall relationship between milk consumption and hip fracture risk. The conflicting study findings go on and on. So what’s the milky truth?

Stats aside, it is obvious when comparing milk consumption with prevalence of osteoporosis globally that more milk = weaker bones. Harvard Professor of Nutrition David Ludwig notes that historically humans consumed little-to-no milk products, and populations who consume less dairy products have perfectly healthy bones. Drinking milk isn’t healthy, rather it’s a cultural phenomenon.

The below graph published in the British Medical Journal is one of many clearly evidencing a negative correlation with hip fractures….those poor Norwegian hips.

Amy Lanou, nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C., revealed countries where people have the greatest milk and overall calcium intake also seem to have the highest rates of osteoporosis. The irony of it all!

And there’s more to milk than the negative impact on your bones. While encouraging milk consumption for calcium, Healthline notes on their website that dairy consumption is linked to acne (feels), increased risk of prostate and ovarian cancer, allergy issues and, of course, lactose intolerance. Seems like a lot of risks for something that might not be giving you calcium in the first place, doesn’t it? Leafy greens, fish, nuts and seeds are all easily-absorbable calcium-dense alternatives to milk, with far less associated health risks.

Despite studies revealing contrasting findings on the milk/calcium/bone health debate, I have no doubt there is a paradoxical relationship at play. Only future research will provides with a conclusive answer. But for me, this milk myth has been well and truly busted.

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