Updated 25 June 2014

Brittle bones: the role of dairy

Ask most teenagers and young women what they know about osteoporosis and they will probably answer, ‘That’s an old woman’s disease".


Ask most teenagers and young women what they know about osteoporosis and they will probably answer, ‘That’s an old woman’s disease!”, thus implying that anything to do with bone health, building up healthy stores of calcium in the body for later use and drinking milk or having dairy products every day is not a priority for anyone who is not menopausal. After all, there is time enough to fix health problems when we get older. 

This approach is fatally flawed because bone mineral mass (the amount of healthy calcium-rich bone in your skeleton) is what determines fracture risk at any time of a person’s life. Statistics show that up to 50% of all children and teenagers between the ages of 5 and 18 years will suffer from at least one bone fracture,³ if not more, during this period. No wonder we are facing a ‘Brittle Bone Epidemic’ that affects all ages. 

Researchers working as far afield as Switzerland and Canada³ have determined that to prevent fractures in adolescents and older people, it is essential to maximise ‘bone mineral mass’. 

You have a single window of opportunity which stretches from childhood through adolescence into young adulthood, to ensure that your body and your bones contain adequate stores of calcium and other minerals.³ So there is actually no time but the present to fix your bones! 

The amount of bone deposited in your skeleton by the end of your growth period at the age of about 20 years,³ will determine if you will have strong bones for the rest of your life, or if you will be prone to bone fractures and osteoporosis for the rest of your life.  

Factors that influence how much calcium you deposit in your bones include dietary intake of calcium, vitamin D and protein, genetics, gender, physical activity, hormones, and avoidance of smoking, alcohol and fizzy cold drinks.¹ - ³ From a dietary point of view, milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese and other types of cheese contain the most bioavailable calcium and high quality protein of any foods. ‘3 servings of dairy a day’ is advice that we cannot ignore for the sake of our bone strength and health. 

Teens and young women who are constantly on diet are the first to cut out ‘fattening milk and dairy’. 5 Replacing nutrient-dense milk with artificially sweetened, carbonated cold drinks and doing extreme amounts of exercise push the brittle bone epidemic to unprecedented heights. 

It’s time that young people realised that they need to consume three servings of dairy every day and that by using fat-free or low-fat milk, yoghurt or cottage cheese they can obtain enough calcium and protein to build up that vital bone mineral mass without the fat or kilojoules. Ironically researchers have found that slimming diets that provide plenty of calcium from low-fat or fat-free dairy products, promote weight loss more efficiently, than slimming diets without calcium. 4

Smart teenagers and young adults use at least 3 servings of low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy products a day and do plenty, but not excessive, weight-bearing exercise to develop peak bone mineral mass before they reach the age of 20 and in the process they also develop a slim, trim body. This is a win-win situation to beat the Brittle Bone Epidemic! 


  1. Striegel-Moore RH, Thompson D, Affenito SG, et al. 2006. J Pediatr. 148: 183. 
  2. Nielsen SJ & Popkin BM. 2004. Am J Preventative Med. 27: 205.
  3. Rizzoli R, Bianchie M L, Garabédian M, McKay HA, Moreno L A (2010). Maximizing bone mineral masss gain during growth for the prevention of fractures in the adolescents and the elderly. Bone, 46:294-305.
  4. Zemel M B, Donnelly J E, Smith B K, Sullivan D K, et al. (2008). Effects of dairy intake on weight management. Nutrition & Metabolism, 5:28.
  5. Harvard Health. 2009. Carbonated beverages and the risk of bone fractures in teenaged girls.



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Healthy Bones

Tereza is the CEO of the National Osteoporosis Foundation and worked as a Nursing Sister in the field of Osteoporosis for 18 years prior to her appointment with the Foundation. She used to be the Educational Officer for the Foundation and co-wrote the patient brochure on Osteoporosis. Read more

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