The powerful dairy industry is claiming bias on the part of a leading medical journal. The root of the problem is an article that appeared in Pediatrics that found little evidence that children need a milk-heavy diet to build strong bones.
The authors analyzed findings from 27 studies that focused on diet and bone health in children and young adults.
According to the authors, only nine of those studies found that there was a relationship between calcium intake and bone health, and the effects were small.
The study did not see any difference in bone health between the children who consumed 500 milligrams (mg) of calcium (approximately one-and-a-half glasses of milk) and those who consumed 800 or 1,200 mg daily, reports study co-author Amy Lanou, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Growing Strong Bones
Getting more calcium from dairy products simply isn't necessary, she says.
"The bottom line for parents is that if your child is lactose-intolerant, or if your child doesn't like milk or is allergic to milk, you really don't have to worry," she says.
Instead, she says, parents can look at other ways to promote the growth of strong bones, "The best option is to get your kids outside playing, getting some exercise and some sunshine, and make sure they have an overall healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes." Lanou recommends non-animal sources of calcium, such as dark greens, tofu, nuts and seeds, and such calcium-fortified products as rice milk, soy milk and orange juice.
Because the group that sponsored the study promotes vegetarianism, the dairy industry has accused the study authors (some of whom are vegetarians themselves) of pushing a pro-vegetarian agenda and bucking conventional wisdom that recommends three servings of dairy a day.
"Go out and look at (what) mainstream medical and health professionals are saying," says Greg Miller, the National Dairy Council's senior vice president of nutrition and product innovation. "This opinion piece really stands out as an anomaly compared to what every other group is saying," he says.
According to Miller, one problem is that the current research did not examine randomized controlled studies, the "gold standard" of medical research. Lanou says that few of these studies were available.
Miller contends that even small calcium-related changes in bone strength can be important. While genetics accounts for 60% to 80% of a person's bone health, "you've got about 20% that you can impact," he says.
He suggests children consume three servings a day of dairy products. Teenagers may need as many as four servings. (One serving is equivalent to one 8-ounce glass of milk, one 9. ounce container of yogurt, or two dice-sized pieces of cheese.)
"Not having calcium would be like trying to build a brick house without bricks," according to Miller.
However, Lanou has supporters, too. Susan Brown, director of the Osteoporosis Education Project, says for forming and maintaining strong bones, "the data for calcium is quite weak, as compared to looking at vitamin K and vitamin D."
She believes that many Americans overestimate the amount of calcium they need in their daily diets.