Dairy products have picked up a bad rap in recent years. (And really, when was the last time you saw a grown-up down a glass of milk?) That’s likely because of several reasons: Dairy can be fatty. In fact, the type of fat found in whole-fat dairy products is saturated fat, which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease by damaging arteries and increasing the "bad" LDL cholesterol that clogs them up. Too much saturated fat also causes weight gain.
What’s more, some people have a tough time digesting dairy. And it can be tricky to separate smart nutrition advice from propaganda given the dairy industry's funding of government programs and dairy research.
But believe it or not, dairy does pack an undeniable punch of bone-healthy nutrients. The key is to make informed choices when choosing your dairy.
For the Bones
Back in 2000, a pair of University of Alabama scientists gathered all of the studies that had looked at the relationship between dairy consumption and bone health since 1985. There were 46 of them in total. Altogether, these studies told a confusing story. More than half of the studies were inconclusive as to whether dairy products actually help our bones.
But Dennis Savaiano, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition science at Purdue University, notes that making direct correlations between our adult dairy consumption and our bone health can be tricky. "The problem," he says, "is that bone health is a lifelong process. We know that, for example, in early adolescents and children, children who avoid milk before puberty already have lower bone densities in the United States. We know that we can use dairy to maximize bone density in children."
However, as adults, there's not a lot we can do to change our bone mass. It's already been established. What dairy can help us do is maintain the bone mass we already have. "You want to make sure you get enough calcium to try to limit the loss of calcium as you grow into old age," recommends Savaiano.
Technically, notes Robert Heaney, M.D., a clinical endocrinologist specializing in nutrition at Creighton University, you could get that calcium from other sources besides dairy. But that doesn’t come easy. Adds Savaiano: "Dairy becomes really the only easy dietary approach to getting enough calcium." For example, he says, "Three cups of broccoli equals about one cup of milk. It's a lot of broccoli."
You might be thinking, "Great, so dairy is good for bones. But I can't eat dairy." Not so fast. Your stomach can likely handle dairy products better than you think, says Dr. Heaney. "The milk sugar called lactose can't be digested by the natural enzymes in a portion of the population," he explains. "They lack that enzyme once they become adults. That's true to a certain extent for all of us." But, he says, most people can regain that lactose-digesting enzyme, called lactase.