“Drink your milk, it's good for your bones.”
That is the catchphrase that mothers and fathers across the world have employed against their children in effort to persuade them to finish drinking their glasses of milk, presumably to stock up on calcium. However, is it true, or just a myth that has been ongoing for generations?
In order to answer that question, we need to take a step back.
Countless children are told to be good and drink their milk, with their parents preaching that this is the key to strong, healthy bones.
But is this really the only way to go? Experts say rather than focusing on cheese and yogurt, a good balance of calcium-rich foods – which doesn’t mean only dairy – vitamin D and exercise is important.
Dairy products are indeed rich in calcium, and an adequate calcium balance is vital for the human body, not just in the early stages of life but later on as well, to prevent diseases like osteoporosis, for example.
“This mineral is an essential component of skeletal mass,” explains Professor Diana Rubin, board member of the German Society for Nutritional Medicine (DGEM).
Around 98% of the calcium in the body is found in the bones – and thus a decisive factor in terms of their stability.
However, even though calcium is important for bone stability, the mineral needs help.
“Without vitamin D, calcium cannot be incorporated into the bones,” says Professor Achim Bub, head of the Study Centre for Human Nutrition at the German Federal Research Institute for Nutrition and Food.
In the summer months, the body forms a precursor of the vitamin via the UV radiation on the skin. In this way, large part of the vitamin D requirement is covered. Fish, especially fatty sea fish such as herring or salmon, can also supply vitamin D.
But there is another key factor when it comes to healthy bones: exercise.
“Physical exercise creates a certain form of stress in the body,” Bub says. “The muscles and bones continue to build up over time to be able to handle that stress.”
Banking on dairy is therefore not enough to keep your bones healthy.
And with more and more people looking to increasingly avoid animal products, it is worth looking into some other foods with a high calcium intake.
While cow milk is often thought to be more nutritious than its plant-based alternatives, many manufacturers also add calcium to them now, so the requirement can also be met in this way.
Another, lesser known option to keep tabs on your calcium intake is mineral water, which also contains calcium that is “just as readily available to the body as it is from dairy products,” explains Bub.
For comparison: a glass of milk contains some 240 milligrams (mg) of calcium, while a liter of mineral water may contain 300 mg and more.
There are also numerous vegetables that provide calcium, including kale, spinach, arugula and broccoli.
The German Nutrition Society recommends a daily calcium intake of 1200 mg for teenagers between the ages of 13 and 18, and 1000 mg for adults.