Loading Up on Calcium May Not Help Bone Health

You’ve known since you were a kid that you should drink your milk to grow big and strong. Why? Calcium helps strengthen your bones and lower your risk of fractures. After years of doctors, our mothers, and advertisements telling us this, though, research has actually begun to debunk the idea. Most recently, two new studies, published in BMJ, have shown that people who take the recommended daily dose of 1,000 to 1,200 mg of calcium (about four cups of milk or three servings of non-dairy items like almonds, oranges, and dark leafy greens) only reap a one to two percent increase in bone health—certainly not enough to claim any real benefit of calcium to our bone strength or health.

This news comes after another study in BMJ last year found that too much milk could actuallyhurt our bone health, as those who drank more milk had higher levels of oxidative stress, which can cause serious heart issues, and actually had a higher incidence of fractures.  (Ask the Diet Doctor: Dangers of Milk.)

Got confusion?

Well, according to the latest analyses, past research that has built the case for calcium has had one of two flaws: It’s either been conducted in a small population that was already at risk for fractures, or the increase in bone density was marginal, just like what the new studies have found.

“Unfortunately, as time advances in the world of health science, there will be a lot of conflicting research, but you just have to take everything with a grain of salt,” says New York-based nutritionist Lisa Moskovitz, R.D. Even if added calcium boasts no added bone benefits, it’s still an important nutrient, particularly for weight management, PMS control, and even breast cancer prevention, she adds, so you should still fill up, just for other reasons.

She recommends aiming for two to three servings of calcium a day (roughly 1,000 mg). Unless you’re in a high-risk group like post-menopausal woman, taking supplements or sneaking in more servings is probably overkill.

So what does help keep your bones strong? The studies are pretty strong in favor of vitamin D, Moskovitz says. (Find out How to Pick the Best Vitamin D Supplement.) Forget milk—Got Sunshine?

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