Is Milk Needed to Build Strong Bones?

A Healthnotes Newswire Opinion

Healthnotes Newswire (September 20, 2007)—A new study has found that many adolescent girls erroneously perceive themselves to be milk-intolerant so they unnecessarily avoid milk and deprive themselves of much-needed calcium, and therefore have weaker bones than girls who drink milk. However, it’s premature for parents to conclude that their daughters’ milk-related stomach aches are imaginary and that they should be pushed to drink milk because their bones will suffer without it.

In the new study, 246 adolescent girls answered three questions related to whether they perceived themselves to be milk-intolerant: (1) Are you allergic to milk? (2) Do you get a stomach ache after drinking milk? (3) Have you been told that drinking milk will make your stomach hurt? Based on the responses, the girls were classified as having perceived milk intolerance or perceived milk tolerance (control group).

Compared with the control group, the girls with perceived milk intolerance consumed an average of 212 mg less calcium per day and had significantly lower bone mass. In addition, 55% of the girls with perceived milk intolerance were tested and found not to have lactose intolerance, the most common cause of milk-related intestinal complaints.

This study raises two important questions: The first is whether many people who think milk bothers them are mistaken. It is true that many people who experience symptoms from drinking milk are able to digest lactose normally. However, some of these people suffer not from lactose intolerance but from milk protein allergy—a common problem that can cause a wide array of symptoms, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, asthma, migraine headaches, and mood changes. Since the new study tested only for lactose intolerance, not for milk protein allergy, it is not possible to conclude that the children were wrong in thinking they were intolerant to milk.

The second question the study raises is whether people’s bones will suffer if they do not eat or drink dairy products. Milk is certainly a potent and convenient source of bone-building calcium. However, there are many other ways to get calcium, including calcium-fortified orange juice and soy milk, leafy green vegetables, fish with edible bones (such as mackerel), and calcium supplements.

So, while getting enough calcium is important for bone health, dairy products aren’t the only way to do it. People who experience adverse effects from dairy products should work with a dietitian or other nutritionally oriented healthcare practitioner in order to ensure that they are getting enough calcium and other important nutrients.

(Pediatrics 2007;120:e699–77)

An expert in nutritional therapies, Chief Medical Editor Alan R. Gaby, MD, is a former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition. He is past-president of the American Holistic Medical Association and gave expert testimony to the White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine on the cost-effectiveness of nutritional supplements. Dr. Gaby has conducted nutritional seminars for physicians and has collected over 30,000 scientific papers related to the field of nutritional and natural medicine. In addition to editing and contributing to The Natural Pharmacy (Three Rivers Press, 1999), and the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Three Rivers Press, 1999), Dr. Gaby has authored Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima Lifestyles, 1995) and B6: The Natural Healer (Keats, 1987) and coauthored The Patient's Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999).

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