by Bruce Friedrich
"The myth that osteoporosis is caused by calcium
deficiency was created to sell dairy products and calcium supplements.
There's no truth to it. American women are among the biggest consumers of
calcium in the world, and they still have one of the highest levels of
osteoporosis in the world. And eating even more dairy products and calcium
supplements is not going to change that fact.
--Dr. John McDougall
The McDougall Program for Women (2000)
Osteoporosis is a debilitating disease characterized by
low bone mass and deteriorating bone tissue that affects tens of millions
of Americans and causes 1.5 million fractures annually. The annual cost of
treatment totals more than $10 billion. While some people suffering from
osteoporosis experience recurring back pain, loss of height, and spinal
deformities, many don't even know they have the disease until a bone
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, one
in two women over the age of 50, and one in eight men, will experience an
The dairy industry has a powerful hold on the nutrition
industry in this country; it pays huge numbers of dietitians, doctors, and
researchers to push dairy, spending more than $300 million annually, just
at the national level, to retain a market for its products. The dairy
industry has infiltrated schools, bought off sports stars, celebrities,
and politicians, pushing all the while an agenda based on profit, rather
than public health.
Dr. Walter Willett, a veteran nutrition researcher at
the Harvard School of Public Health, says that calcium consumption "has
become like a religious crusade," overshadowing true preventive measures
such as physical exercise. To hear the dairy industry tell it, if you
consume three glasses of milk daily, your bones will be stronger, and you
can rest safely knowing that osteoporosis is not in your future.
Despite the dairy industry funding study after study to
try to prove its claims, Dr. John McDougall, upon examining all the
available nutritional studies and evidence, concludes:
"The primary cause of osteoporosis is the high-protein
diet most Americans consume today. As one leading researcher in this area
said, '[Eating a high-protein diet is like pouring acid rain on your
bones.'" Remarkably enough, if dairy has any effect, both clinical and
population evidence strongly implicate dairy in causing, rather than
preventing, osteoporosis. That the dairy industry would lull unsuspecting
women and children into complacency by telling them, essentially, drink
more milk and your bones will be fine, may make good business sense, but
it does the public a grave disservice.
Most of the world's peoples do not consume cow's milk,
and yet most of the world does not experience the high rates of
osteoporosis found in the West. In Asian countries, for example, where
consumption of dairy foods is low (and where women tend to be thin and
small-boned, universally accepted risk factors for osteoporosis), fracture
rates are much lower than they are in the United States and in
Scandinavian countries, where consumption of dairy products is
But don't take our word for it; examine the science for
One study, funded by the National Dairy Council,
involved giving a group of postmenopausal women three 8-ounce glasses of
skim milk per day for two years and comparing their bones to those of a
control group of women not given the milk. The dairy group consumed 1,400
mg of calcium per day and lost bone at twice the rate of the control
group. According to the researchers, "This may have been due to the
average 30 percent increase in protein intake during milk supplementation
... The adverse effect of increases in protein intake on calcium balance
has been reported from several laboratories, including our own" (they then
cite 10 other studies). Says McDougall,
"Needless to say, this finding did not reach the six
After looking at 34 published studies in 16 countries,
researchers at Yale University found that countries with the highest rates
of osteoporosis--including the United States, Sweden, and Finland--are
those in which people consume the most meat, milk, and other animal foods.
This study also showed that African Americans, who consume, on average,
more than 1,000 mg of calcium per day, are nine times more likely to
experience hip fractures than are South African blacks, whose daily
calcium intake is only 196 mg. Says McDougall, "[O]n a nation-by-nation
basis, people who consume the most calcium have the weakest bones and the
highest rates of osteoporosis. ... Only in those places where calcium and
protein are eaten in relatively high quantities does a deficiency of bone
calcium exist, due to an excess of animal protein."
Harvard University's landmark Nurses Health Study, which
followed 78,000 women over a 12-year period, found that the women who
consumed the most calcium from dairy foods broke more bones than those who
rarely drank milk. Summarizing this study, the Lunar Osteoporosis Update
(November 1997) explained: "This increased risk of hip fracture was
associated with dairy calcium … If this were any agent other than milk,
which has been so aggressively marketed by dairy interests, it undoubtedly
would be considered a major risk factor."
A National Institutes of Health study out of the
University of California, published in the American Journal of Clinical
Nutrition (2001), found that;
"Women who ate most of their protein from animal sources
had three times the rate of bone loss and 3.7 times the rate of hip
fractures of women who ate most of their protein from vegetable sources."
Even though the researchers adjusted "for everything we could think of
that might otherwise explain the relationship … it didn't change the
results." The study's conclusion: "[A]n increase in vegetable protein
intake and a decrease in animal protein intake may decrease bone loss and
the risk of hip fracture."
Another study published in the American Journal of
Clinical Nutrition (2000) looked at all aspects of diet and bone health
and found that high consumption of fruits and vegetables positively affect
bone health and that dairy consumption did not. Such findings do not
surprise nutritional researchers: According to Dr. Neal Barnard, author of
Turn Off the Fat Genes (2001) and several other books on diet and health,
the calcium absorption from vegetables is as good as or better than that
from milk. Calcium absorption from milk is approximately 30 percent, while
figures for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens, turnip greens,
kale, and some other leafy green vegetables range between 40 percent and
After reviewing studies on the link between protein
intake and urinary calcium loss, nutritional researcher Robert P. Heaney
found that as consumption of protein increases, so does the amount of
calcium lost in the urine (Journal of the American Dietetic Association,
1993): "This effect has been documented in several different study designs
for more than 70 years," he writes, adding, "[T]he net effect is such that
if protein intake is doubled without changing intake of other nutrients,
urinary calcium content increases by about 50 percent."
Researchers from the University of Sydney and Westmead
Hospital discovered that consumption of dairy foods, especially early in
life, increases the risk of hip fractures in old age (American Journal of
Finally, an analysis of all research conducted since
1985, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2000),
"If dairy food intakes confer bone health, one might
expect this to have been apparent from the 57 outcomes, which included
randomized, controlled trials and longitudinal cohort studies involving
The researchers go on to lament that "there have been
few carefully designed studies of the effects of dairy foods on bone
health," and then to conclude with typical scientific reserve that:
"The body of scientific evidence appears inadequate to
support a recommendation for daily intake of dairy foods to promote bone
health in the general U.S. population."
What we do know is that osteoporosis rates decline
markedly as body weight, exercise, and caloric intake rise. Corroborating
the researchers' lament about bad studies, only three studies have
factored caloric intake into the analysis; two of them found no
correlation between dairy intake and osteoporosis. The other found a
positive link; that is, the more milk consumed, the higher the fracture
risk (Harvard Nurses Study, see above).
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2000) study
cited above argued that since we know for certain that total caloric
intake and body weight are positively associated with bone mass, such
factors are "particularly important" in any study of osteoporosis and bone
Is the dairy industry ignoring these factors by design
in its clinical studies, perhaps because dairy consumers tend to be
heavier and to consume more calories than those consuming fewer (or no)
dairy products? It is remarkable that the dairy industry can't get the
results it's looking for, since dairy consumption does tend to make people
heavier. Even though dairy researchers ignore this factor, most studies
still show no relationship, and some indicate that milk causes
osteoporosis. If the tendencies of those who consume more dairy to be
heavier and to consume more calories were accounted for, would the studies
indicating no link show, in fact, that dairy intake causes osteoporosis,
like the Harvard School of Public Health study? That would bring clinical
analysis into line with the population analysis, which clearly states that
increased dairy consumption is linked to increased risk for osteoporosis.
So what can I do for strong bones?
Osteoporosis is a horrible disease, and although the
evidence is strong that dairy consumption doesn't prevent it, simply
eliminating dairy products does not ensure that it won't afflict you. And
if, like most people who consume no meat or dairy, you are slender, you
should be sure to put some thought (and effort) into keeping your bones
What the evidence does dictate as useful for strong
* Getting enough vitamin D (if you don't spend any time
in the sun, be sure to take a supplement or eat fortified foods).
* Eliminating animal protein (for a variety of reasons,
animal protein causes severe bone deterioration).
* Limiting alcohol consumption (alcohol is toxic to the
cells that form bones and inhibits the absorption of calcium).
* Limiting salt intake (sodium leaches calcium out of
* Not smoking (studies have shown that women who smoke
one pack of cigarettes a day have 5 to 10 percent less bone density at
menopause than nonsmokers).
* Getting plenty of exercise. Studies have concluded
that physical exercise is the key to building strong bones (more important
than any other factor). For example, a study published in the British
Medical Journal, which followed 1,400 men and women over a 15-year period,
found that exercise may be the best protection against hip fractures and
that "reduced intake of dietary calcium does not seem to be a risk
factor." And Penn State University researchers found that bone density is
significantly affected by how much exercise girls get during their teen
years, when 40 to 50 percent of their skeletal mass is developed.
Consistent with previous research, the Penn State study, which was
published in Pediatrics (2000), the journal of the American Academy of
Pediatrics, showed that calcium intake, which ranged from 500 to 1,500 mg
per day, has no lasting effect on bone health.
"We (had) hypothesized that increased calcium intake
would result in better adolescent bone gain. Needless to say, we were
surprised to find our hypothesis refuted," one researcher explained.
Drinking milk builds dairy producers' profits, but as
the above studies show, it's more likely to harm your bones than to help
them. And dairy foods are linked to all sorts of other problems, including
obesity, heart disease and cancer (including breast cancer and prostate
cancer) and are likely to be contaminated with trace levels of
antibiotics, hormones, and other chemicals, including dioxin, one of the
most toxic substances known to humans (The Washington Post reported that
"the latest EPA study concludes that people who consume even small amounts
of dioxin in fatty foods and dairy products face a cancer risk of 1 in
100. They may also develop other problems, such as attention disorder,
learning disabilities, susceptibility to infections and liver disorders"
(April 12, 2001).
Of course, calcium is an essential mineral, and it is
possible to have a calcium deficiency. According to Dr. Neal Barnard,
president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine:
"Milk, in particular, is poor insurance against bone
breaks ... the healthiest calcium sources are green leafy vegetables and
legumes ... You don't need to eat huge servings of vegetables or beans to
get enough calcium, but do include both in your regular menu planning. If
you are looking for extra calcium, fortified orange, apple, or grapefruit
juices are good choices."
It makes no more sense for humans to consume the
mother's milk of cows than for us to consume the mother's milk of rats,
cats, dogs, giraffes, or any other mammal. Nature created human mother's
milk for baby humans, cow mother's milk for baby cows, and so on.
The late Dr. Benjamin Spock, in Baby and Child Care (the
United States' best selling book, other than the Bible, over the past 50
years), after recommending that no one consume cow's milk and cataloging a
host of ills associated with milk consumption (heart disease, cancer,
obesity, antibiotic residue, iron deficiency, asthma, ear infections, skin
conditions, stomach aches, bloating, and diarrhea), concludes:
"In nature, animals do not drink milk after infancy, and
that is the normal pattern for humans, too. ...Children stay in better
calcium balance when their protein comes from plant sources."
Dr. Spock recommends human mother's milk for baby
humans, as nature intended.
"It is hard to turn on the television without hearing
commercials suggesting that milk promotes strong bones. The commercials do
not point out that only 30 percent of milk's calcium is absorbed by the
body or that osteoporosis is common among milk drinkers. Nor do they help
you correct the real causes of bone loss."
--Dr. Neal Barnard
Says Dr. T. Colin Campbell, the world's leading
epidemiological researcher in the field of diet and health,
"The dairy folks, ever since the 1920s, have been
enormously successful in cultivating an environment within virtually all
segments of our society--from research and education to public relations
and politics--to have us believing that cow's milk and its products are
manna from heaven. ... Make no mistake about it; the dairy industry has
been virtually in total control of any and all public health information
that ever rises to the level of public scrutiny."
"The association between the intake of animal protein
and fracture rates appears to be as strong as the association between
cigarette smoking and lung cancer."
--Dr. T. Colin Campbell
"Milk, it now seems clear, is not the solution to poor
bone density. To the contrary, it's part of the problem."
--Dr. Charles Attwood
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