Does milk really prevent osteoporosis?

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According to official statistics, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 12 men are set to feel the ageing process in their bones as a result of the skeleton-thinning condition known as osteoporosis. The bone-weakening effect of osteoporosis is estimated to responsible for 200,000 fractures in the UK each year, and is a cause of considerable disability and a significant number of deaths. Until recently, the mainstay treatment for osteoporosis was hormone replacement therapy (HRT). However, the Department of Health has recently advised doctors against prescribing HRT for such purposes due to increasing concerns about its safety. Unfortunately, the main alternative to HRT for osteoporosis (a class of drugs known as the bisphosphonates) has, as yet, only been shown to reduce risk of fracture in elderly individuals in whom the signs of osteoporosis have already set into their bones.

The seeming lack of effective bone-strengthening medications means that our later lives could well turn out to be crunch time for many of us. Fortunately, our diet can help provide the raw materials for the making of bone that is built to last. The standard dietetic line on this score has centred on a good intake of calcium – the prime element in bone – especially in the form of dairy products such as milk and cheese. However, while a good intake of calcium does appear to be important for bone formation early in life, the evidence shows that there is little or no bone benefit to be had from eating dairy products after the age of 50.

Another common concept expressed by the dietetic fraternity is that high-protein diets predispose to osteoporosis by increasing the rate at which calcium is lost from the body. The reality is that several studies have found that high animal protein (e.g. meat and fish) consumption is associated with better bone density. Other foods that have been consistently linked with improved bone health are fruit and vegetables. Eating fruit and veg tends to alkalinise the body, an effect which reduces the risk of calcium being leeched from the bone. Some fruit and veg is also rich in nutrients that are important building blocks in the manufacture of bone including magnesium (also found in high concentration in nuts) and boron.

Other nutrients that are believed to be important for the manufacture of strong bones include vitamin D (found in fish oils) and vitamin K (found in green leafy veg). Overall, the evidence suggests that the best diet for the prevention of osteoporosis is one based on fundamental foods such as meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and nuts. In addition to eating a diet based on such evolutionary foods, those looking to feed their bones might like to take a supplement specifically designed with this in mind. A suitable supplement is Osteocare, made by the company Vitabiotics, and is available in health food stores and pharmacies.

Regular activity and exercise has been consistently linked with a reduced risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture. Weight-bearing exercises such as walking and light jogging seem to have the capacity to strengthen bone and prevent fracture. In one study, women walking at least 4 hours a week were found to have a 41 per cent reduced risk of fracture in the hip compared to women walking less than 1 hour a week. The evidence shows that a primal diet and regular activity have the capacity to combat osteoporosis, and help to ensure that we can look forward to hard times ahead.

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