• Donnington Grove

Milk myths and scare-stories

milk

Young people ditching dairy don’t need cow’s milk for healthy bones and misleading headlines are doing them a disservice. 

A number of newspapers are warning how young people cutting out dairy could be putting their bone health at risk. The National Osteoporosis Society (NOS) surveyed 2,000 adults and found that one in five 18-25 year-olds said they had cut out or reduced dairy in their diet. They say eliminating milk products can be harmful unless the missed nutrients are replaced.

However, their website says: “If you don’t eat dairy products, you will need to include lots of other calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, almonds, sesame seeds, dried fruit, pulses, fortified soya drinks and soya protein (tofu) in your diet. A vegetarian diet is not a risk factor for osteoporosis and vegetarians and vegans do not appear to have poorer bone health than the rest of the population.”

Veronika Powell, Viva!Health campaigner, says: “Young people are not stupid; they are perfectly capable of making informed decisions based on the facts. Muddying the water with misleading headlines and scare stories is doing them a disservice.” Research suggests that physical (especially weight-bearing – walking, dancing and climbing stairs) exercise is the most critical factor for maintaining healthy bones, followed by improving diet and lifestyle; this means eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and cutting down on sugar and caffeine and avoiding alcohol and smoking. 

The fact is over 70 per cent of the world’s population are lactose intolerant (they can’t digest the sugar in milk – drinking it makes them unwell). They don’t suffer osteoporosis more than us; in fact, the reverse is true – the highest levels of the disease occur in Europe and the US, where most milk is consumed. Osteoporosis is a big problem in the UK; half of all women and one in five men over 50 suffer a fracture or a break because of fragile bone health. Clearly, drinking milk is not protecting us! 

Dr Justine Butler, Viva!Health’s senior researcher, adds: “Of course you do need to make sure you have a good supply of calcium but many plant milks like soya milk are fortified with the same amount of calcium as found in dairy milk. Good plant-based sources of calcium include: dark green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale, spring greens, cabbage, pak choi and watercress but not spinach), dried fruits (figs), nuts (particularly almonds and Brazil nuts), seeds including sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste), pulses (including soya beans, kidney beans, chick peas, baked beans, broad beans, lentils, peas and calcium-set tofu) and calcium-enriched plant milks.” See our calcium-rich foods wallchart here. 

Another factor (overlooked by the newspapers but not by NOS), is vitamin D – which helps us absorb calcium. Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin as we make it in our skin in response to UV rays from the sun. In the winter months in the UK, we just don’t get enough (or the right type) of sunshine and last year, Public Health England changed their advice announcing that people should consider taking a daily supplement of vitamin D in autumn and winter and people whose skin has little or no exposure to the sun (like those in institutions such as care homes), or who always cover their skin when outside, should take a supplement throughout the year.

To find out more about how to build and protect strong bones see our Break Free campaign featuring our scientific report, easy-to-read guide and fact sheet.

Viva!Health campaigner Veronika Powell is also available for interviews – on 0117 944 1000 or veronika@viva.org.uk