Popular wisdom says that drinking plenty of milk is the key to having strong and healthy bones. Recently, there have been some arguments against that, and some people have even suggested that consuming too much milk can hurt your bones.
As is usually the case when it comes to health, the reality of the matter is complicated, and scientists aren’t entirely positive about the details. In general, it seems that milk can be helpful for people some stages of their lives, and drinking it is unlikely to be harmful, but huge quantities are unlikely to do much good for most adults.
How Milk Can Help
Human bodies make their bones from calcium. They do need a small amount of it to power other metabolic functions, but the vast majority of the calcium is used to build bones and teeth.
Humans can get calcium in two different ways. Under ideal circumstances, it comes from the diet. If the dietary supply of calcium is insufficient, humans can also extract it from their bones. That isn’t ideal because it damages the bones, but it is better than running out of calcium for metabolic purposes.
Milk is useful because it is a great source of calcium. It isn’t the only viable source, since leafy green vegetables also tend to have a decent amount of calcium in them, but it is one of the most effective. Your body has an easier time absorbing calcium from some sources than others, but it generally does not care where it comes from.
Your body can only use so much calcium, and excess will go to waste. Children and teenagers need the most, since bodies build most of their bone while they are young. This is why drinking a huge amount of milk isn’t necessary for adults. They need some calcium, but getting too much does not provide any benefits.
Some of milk’s critics suggest that drinking milk can cause you to lose calcium. Their idea is called the acid-ash hypothesis, and it suggests that drinking milk makes your urine more acidic. The body compensates by using calcium to balance out the acid, which leads to a net loss. They also point to the fact that countries with high milk consumption tend to have a lot of bone fractures.
The evidence for this is poor. The pH value of urine has very little to do with the pH level of the rest of the body, and there is some evidence that drinking milk makes alkaline urine, rather than acidic urine. While it is true that countries with high milk consumption have more bone fractures than average, those countries also tend to have low rates of physical labor and suffer from other factors that make fractures more likely.
Building Healthy Bones
The key to understanding bone health is realizing that there are many different factors that contribute to it. There are miracle foods that will always lead to strong bones. If you want to have strong bones, you need to take every factor that has an impact on them into account. Neglecting any one of them will lead to weakness.
That having been said, a good diet is the basis for building healthy bones. You do need to get enough calcium to build your bones and make sure that your body does not cannibalize them to fuel its metabolism. Scientists are not sure exactly how much calcium is optimal, but most people should probably be getting approximately 1,000 milligrams each day.
Some vitamins are just as important as calcium. Vitamin D is especially important, and is also fairly easy to get. You can get it from your diet, including from milk, but you can also get it from exposure to the sun. Vitamin K has also been linked to bone health. It is fairly easy to get it by eating leafy greens, which also include calcium.
Finally, you should be sure to get plenty of exercise. Bones respond to mild stress by strengthening themselves, and exercise is the best way to make sure they do it. Exercises that make the bones bear weight, such as running or lifting weights, will be most effective.
Putting it Together
Milk is not a miracle food. It helps to build strong bones because it provides most of the nutrients that bones need to grow, but getting those nutrients from other sources is also perfectly effective. You do not need to worry about drinking a certain amount of milk each day if the rest of your diet provides an adequately balanced mix of nutrients.
On the other hand, drinking milk is not likely to do any harm. It provides plenty of nutrients, so it certainly be a valuable tool for people who don’t get calcium from other sources. It simply needs to be considered as part of a larger diet and exercise plan to build healthy bones.