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Unravelling the Dairy-Bone Health Connection: An Age-by-Age Guide

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

As children, we were often served an extra glass of milk with the promise of strong bones and teeth. But does consuming more dairy, such as milk and yogurt, actually guarantee a lifetime of healthier, stronger bones? Does this advice hold true for all ages or could overconsumption of dairy even be harmful at some point? Let's delve into the findings of a recent 2022 analysis that collated the results of 91 studies examining the impact of lifetime dairy consumption on bone health.

Firstly, the journey of bone health begins in the womb. Studies suggest that higher maternal dairy consumption during pregnancy leads to higher bone mineral density in newborns, a benefit that persists even at six years of age. So, expectant parents, take note! It's essential to ensure adequate calcium intake, whether from dairy or other sources. For those on dairy-restricting diets, it's vital to find alternative sources of calcium.

In early childhood (0-3 years), the type of milk consumed doesn't seem to significantly affect bone mineral density by the end of the first year. Whether it's breast milk, cow's milk, or soy formula, all infants seem to fare similarly at the 1-year mark.

As we move into later childhood (3-10 years), a diet rich in dairy and whole grains like oats, buckwheat, and barley appears to yield the best bone mineral density. However, supplementing calcium beyond dietary needs doesn't add any extra bone mass. Conversely, in calcium-deficient populations, calcium-enriched supplements do make a difference. Furthermore, in families where dairy is avoided without appropriate compensation, children are more likely to experience fractures and lower bone mineral density in crucial weight-bearing joints.

The adolescent years (10-19) are critical for bone development. High dairy consumption during this period is strongly linked with better bone mineral density. While sufficient daily calcium intake is paramount, additional supplementation doesn't provide extra benefits unless dietary calcium is deficient. Pairing calcium intake with vitamin D and physical activity adds an extra layer of protection to bone health.

As we transition into adulthood (19-50 years), especially for women approaching menopause or during pregnancy, maintaining adequate calcium intake becomes crucial to prevent bone loss. Interestingly, consuming more dairy doesn't necessarily protect against fractures. Instead, resistance exercise combined with sufficient calcium intake offers better protection against premature bone loss.

Moving into later adulthood (50+ years), a period of increasing bone loss and escalating osteoporosis risk, the benefits of dairy consumption become less clear. Some studies show benefits, while others find no effect. However, supplementing with calcium-fortified foods and maintaining regular exercise habits can be beneficial for bone mass protection.

In conclusion, our relationship with dairy and bone health is a journey that changes as we age. From pregnancy to old age, ensuring adequate calcium intake, whether from dairy or other sources, and pairing it with regular exercise, seems to be the consistent key to maintaining bone health.

It's clear that dairy isn't the only solution, and everyone, particularly those on dairy-restricting diets, needs to ensure they're getting enough calcium from other sources for strong, healthy bones. Remember, your bones are for life; make sure you're giving them the care they deserve.

Did you know?

Research indicates that, surprisingly, vegans tend to consume about the same amount of calcium as omnivores and vegetarians. However, they still face a higher risk of early bone loss. But the answer is not lack of calcium.
It is because vegans tend to be leaner and have a lower body mass. While a lower body mass is often advantageous, warding off illnesses like heart disease and cancer, it might pose a unique challenge for bone health, raising concerns about osteoporosis.
Therefore, if you're following a vegan lifestyle, it's essential to stay active, particularly by incorporating resistance exercises into your routine. This type of workout can help maintain your bone density and even encourage your bones to remineralise, ensuring you stay strong and healthy from the inside out. So, tie up those trainers and let's get moving for better bone health!

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Wallace TC, Bailey RL, Lappe J, et al. Dairy intake and bone health across the lifespan: a systematic review and expert narrative. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2021;61(21):3661-3707.

Ma X, Tan H, Hu M, He S, Zou L, Pan H. The impact of plant-based diets on female bone mineral density: Evidence based on seventeen studies. Medicine (Baltimore). 2021;100(46):

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