According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis and another 44 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’re 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 a day had a 60 percent greater risk of hip fracture than those who drank less than three servings. (5) Dairy won’t save you from brittle bones, but a healthy, active, dairy-free lifestyle certainly can. Follow these six tips below to build and maintain strong bones—because no one wants to stop playing just because they get older.
1. Eat just enough calcium from plant-based sources
The dairy industry has drilled Americans on the importance of strong bones for over a century. We grow up believing that milk builds strong bones, but some don’t even realize that it’s the calcium in milk that contributes to bone health. Cows’ milk itself will not prevent osteoporosis, and it is not the only form of accessible calcium. The dairy industry, however, fails to communicate this last point. Simple, easily accessible foods such as dark leafy greens (kale, bok choy, broccoli, collard greens, etc), nuts and seeds, soy milk, and a variety of beans all contain healthy amounts of bioavailable calcium. In fact, many of these plant foods contain more bioavailable calcium than cows’ milk, as the body can only absorb 33 percent of calcium from cows’ milk, whereas it can absorb up to 64 percent of the calcium found in these plant-based sources. (4) 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.”
Finally, don’t overdo it. Exceeding the recommended daily amount of calcium will not provide extra bone strength. As suggested by the study mentioned above, excess calcium may have an adverse effect and lead to brittle bones. Dr. T. Colin Campbell has also asserted a similar idea. Adults, both male and female, should aim for 1,000 milligrams per day according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2)
2. Incorporate regular weight-bearing exercise
To clarify, “weight-bearing” does not necessitate actual weights. Any exercise that involves supporting your own weight qualifies as weight-bearing. For example, running, walking, tennis, rock climbing, dancing, yoga, and bodyweight exercises (lunges, squats, push-ups, etc) are all considered weight-bearing. To maintain strong, healthy bones, practice some form of this exercise regularly. What’s “regularly?” While there is no specific amount of time, experts have come to a consensus that 30-60 minutes about five days a week will do the trick. (6)
If your sport is not considered weight-bearing (IE cycling, swimming, rowing, chair aerobics, etc), it is essential to cross-train to reap the benefits of weight-bearing exercise. This doesn’t have to be intense—particularly if you’re putting in hard workouts in your primary sport—but you should have a cross-training plan set in place. Take the dog out for a walk every day, take the stairs when you can, or finish a workout with some bodyweight lunges, squats, and push-ups. Find something you enjoy and make it routine, because there’s no doubt you’ll want to be cycling well into your senior years, and that won’t be an option if you’re prone to fractures.
4. Grab Some Weights
It’s true that weight-bearing activity doesn’t require actual weights, but you should pick up a dumbbell now and then if you want to maximize bone health. Muscle-strengthening exercises not only contribute to strong bones, but they can also prevent the risk of a bone-shattering fall. With strong muscles, you can more easily pull yourself out of a fall or prevent your body from giving out on you altogether. Incorporate moderate weight training two to three times a week, and not only will you improve your bone health, you’ll likely improve in your sport as well.
5. 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, no food, including cows’ milk, naturally contains vitamin D—if you see a nutrition label that contains vitamin D, 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. The most natural way to obtain this nutrient is from the sun—when exposed to enough strong sunlight, our body can manufacture it’s 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, as are orange juices. If you get a blood test and you find you’re low, consider taking a supplement. Like calcium, when looking for a supplement, don’t opt for a megadose. Meeting the recommended daily amount (400-800 IU for adults under 50) is all you need to ensure strong bones. (3)
6. 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. (7) 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 make you an Olympian, or Superman, or even help you grow up big and strong. It is simply not the superfood we were brought up to believe. However, incorporating the tips above can help you optimize your health and fitness—so you can continue doing what you love for decades to come.