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Vitamin D (and not Calcium!) May Be the Key to Bone Health

A new study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine concluded that vitamin D intake may be more important for bone health than calcium or dairy consumption.

Researchers followed a sample of 6,712 girls between the ages of 9 and 15 over a period of seven years, annually assessing their dairy, calcium and vitamin D intakes via a food frequency questionnaire. During the study period, just under 4 percent of the girls developed stress fractures.

While calcium intake and overall dairy consumption had no protective effects, higher levels of vitamin D intake resulted in a significantly lower risk of developing a stress fracture. In fact, the girls getting the most vitamin D had half the risk of a fracture compared with the girls getting less vitamin D.

Although dairy products are often put forth as necessary for bone health (largely due to their calcium content), this and other research suggest that calcium supplementation alone is not beneficial.

For example, research has shown that higher calcium intake does not decrease hip fracture risk in women or men, and may even increase risk. Conversely, vitamin D supplementation has been shown to reduce the risk of fractures and falls in the elderly.

While it is certainly important to get enough calcium in the diet, these recent studies suggest that calcium intake is probably over-emphasized at the expense of other, perhaps more important, nutrients. Similarly, it looks like it’s time to re-think “popular belief” about milk and bone health.

As One Green Planet recently reported, research from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) suggests that, contrary to popular belief, milk is not the best source of calcium. HSPH notes that consumption of dairy products can increase prostate and ovarian cancer risk, and that the retinol (vitamin A) found in dairy products can weaken bones at high levels.

There are plenty of plant-based sources of calcium that don’t bring these health-compromising side-effects. HSPH points to collards, bok choy, beans, fortified soy milk, and supplements as good, non-dairy sources of calcium. Kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, broccoli and firm tofu are also great sources of well-absorbed calcium.

Image Credit: Elizabeth Lloyd/Flickr