According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, 10.2 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis and another 54 million have been diagnosed with low bone density—or osteopenia—a precursor to osteoporosis. (1) Not coincidentally, the dairy industry has an iron grip on most Americans—twisting science to instill a sense of urgency to drink more milk. The truth is, humans do not need cows’ milk to build strong bones. In fact, we are far better off without it. In the most comprehensive study on dairy and bone health, researchers found that women who drank three or more servings of cows’ milk per day had a 60 percent greater risk of hip fracture than those who drank less than three servings daily. (2) Dairy won’t save you from brittle bones, but a healthy, active, dairy-free lifestyle certainly can help. Follow these 5 tips below to build and maintain strong bones—because no one wants to stop playing just because they get older.
1. Incorporate Regular Weight-Bearing Exercise
Like any other cell in your body, your bone tissue is continuously being broken down and built back up. Weight-bearing exercise puts force on your muscles, tendons, and bones, which stimulates that important regrowth to maintain strong, dense bones. Without it, the breaking down process starts to outpace the building up, decreasing bone density over time. Did you know astronauts have to intentionally exercise at least two hours per day while in space to preserve their bone mass? Without the continual force of gravity pushing on their muscles and bones like on Earth, their bones can quickly lose density at a rate up to 12 times faster than on Earth.(3) You don’t need to be an astronaut to understand the importance of force. To maintain strong, healthy bones, practice some form of weight-bearing exercise (activities that support your own weight, thanks to gravity) regularly, or about 30-60 minutes five days per week. (4) Weight-bearing is anything that incorporates force, so think running, walking, tennis, rock climbing, dancing, and bodyweight exercises (lunges, squats, push-ups, etc).
2. Eat Calcium From Plant-Based Sources
The dairy industry has drilled Americans on the importance of strong bones for over a century. We grow up getting brain-washed into believing that milk builds strong bones, but some don’t even realize that it’s the calcium in milk that contributes to bone health. Cow’s milk will not prevent osteoporosis, and it is not the only form of dietary calcium. In fact, it’s less bioavailable than many plant sources, meaning your body cannot absorb as much of what you consume. Boiled Brussels sprouts, for example, are twice as bioavailable as dairy products! Dark leafy greens (kale, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, etc), nuts and seeds, soy milk, and a variety of beans all contain high amounts of bioavailable calcium as well. (5) Looking to dip your veggies in something? Tahini is high in calcium and makes a great dip for carrot sticks, cucumber slices, or drizzled over a salad or grain bowl.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, respected researcher and author of The China Study, has also pointed out, “vegetables contain boron, a mineral that helps keep calcium in the bones. Milk contains virtually none.” (6) So if you’re eating a varied diet full of plants, you’re probably getting enough calcium. Adults, both male and female, should aim for 1,000 milligrams per day according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, but check with your healthcare provider for your individual needs. (7)
3. Vary Your Exercise
If your favorite activity is not considered weight-bearing (such as cycling, swimming, rowing, chair aerobics, etc), it is essential to cross-train to still get that important force on your bones. This doesn’t have to be intense—especially if you’re putting in hard workouts in your primary sport—but you should have a plan in place. When you add additional weight and impact, you’re upping the force placed on your bones, leading to enhanced regrowth. Strong muscles also help prevent the risk of a bone-shattering fall by giving you better balance and the ability to catch yourself if you do slip or start to fall. Pick up some dumbbells or a barbell, go for a light jog, or do a few sets of something like jump squats. Find an activity you enjoy and add it to your routine, because there’s no doubt you’ll want to be cycling with strong muscles and dense bones well into your senior years.
4. Soak in the Vitamin D (or Take a Supplement)
Vitamin D is essential to bone health because it helps the body absorb calcium more efficiently and supports strong muscles. Despite dairy industry claims, cows’ milk does not naturally contain vitamin D. When the carton says it contains vitamin D, it’s because it’s fortified. Dr. Milton Mills, MD, has said that drinking cows’ milk for its calcium or vitamin D content is like smoking a cigarette for oxygen—it just doesn’t make sense, and there are better options out there without the negative consequences. The most natural way to obtain this nutrient is from the sun—when exposed to enough strong sunlight, our body can manufacture its own vitamin D. However, those who live in colder climates, or those who are not able to spend 10-30 minutes in the midday sun, need to look to other sources. Many plant milks are now fortified with vitamin D, making it even easier to get through your diet. We suggest getting a blood test and discussing your level with your healthcare provider if you are concerned.
5. Don’t forget about these essential nutrients
Calcium and Vitamin D are most often promoted in regards to osteoporosis prevention and bone health, but they are not the only vitamins that support your skeletal system. Boron, vitamin K, and magnesium are also essential. (8) All of these nutrients are widely available in plant-based foods. Find boron in prunes, dried apricots, raisins, and avocados; vitamin K in brussels sprouts, prunes, and dark leafy greens; and magnesium in nuts, brown rice, kidney beans, and lentils. When you consume a varied diet full of plants—instead of relying on a single source of nutrition as the dairy industry advises—you are far more likely to meet your nutritional needs and feel your best.
Drinking cows’ milk won’t help you become an Olympian, or a superhero, or even help you grow big and strong. The dairy industry has been creatively trying to market milk as a superfood, especially for bone health, but it’s simply not necessary. Instead, start incorporating these tips to help you optimize your health and fitness—so you can continue doing what you love for decades to come.