Do kids really need milk to build strong bones?

I recently had Radio 4 on for a bit of oral wallpaper, and found my ears pricking up during an item on quangos. According to a recent report published by the Efficiency in Government Unit (EGU), the UK now has more than 500 of these ‘quasi-autonomous, non-governmental organisations’ which soak up billions of taxpayers pounds each year but often appear to offer dubious value for money. One quango rating highly in the ‘useless’ stakes in the EGU report is the Milk Development Council. At one point during the radio item, a representative from this organisation was heard hard-selling the healthy attributes of milk to school children. I was left wondering what merit there is in milking the benefits of a foodstuff that is generally taken to have a indispensable nutritional role in kids.

Those keen to tout the benefits of milk will often highlight the fact that it is a prime source of calcium for the building of bone in children. My experience in practice is that the belief that dairy-derived calcium is needed for strong and healthy bones is firmly entrenched in our psyches. This is evidenced by the fact that should I recommend the cutting out of milk and perhaps other dairy products from a child’s diet (usually because sensitivity to dairy foods is a frequent factor in health issues such as asthma, eczema and ear infections), parents will almost always express concern that this dietary change may leave their child short on calcium.

However, the tenet that dairy products are near-essential for bone-building in kids has been somewhat shattered on the publication of a study earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics. In it, American researchers cast a critical eye over the research assessing the role of calcium and dairy products in the bone health of children and young adults. Of 37 relevant studies, 27 found no relationship between dietary calcium or dairy product intake and measures of bone health. Of the remaining studies, any apparent benefit was surprisingly small.

While the bone benefits of calcium, including that derived from dairy products, may have been overstated, some of this nutrient is clearly essential for bone health. Good alternative sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables such as kale and broccoli. Veggies also tend to alkalinise the blood, something which appears to help preserve the calcium content of bone. Other good sources of calcium include tinned salmon and sardines. These are also rich in vitamin D – a nutrient that has an important role in the formation of healthy bone. Another lifestyle factor that has a bearing on the bones is exercise. Evidence suggests that activity during adolescence has a much greater influence on measures of bone health than calcium intake.

Although somewhat surprising, it seems the evidence suggests that bone health in kids has surprisingly little to do with the downing of dairy products. The authors of the study in Pediatrics conclude that the available evidence does not support the promotion of milk or other dairy products as bone builders in children and adolescents. Recent evidence appears to add some nutritional credence to the EGU’s recent branding of the Milk Development Council as one of the UK’s most useless quangos.

One Response to Do kids really need milk to build strong bones?

  1. Radiant Lux 30 January 2010 at 12:23 am #

    Bone broths are a good source of calcium and other minerals. How about the minerals in meat?

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