Is a dairy-free diet bad for your bones?

George Morris Physio Wigan

Is a dairy-free diet bad for your bones?

Many of us are ditching cow's milk in favour of alternatives such as almond and soy. But this could lead to problems in later life, warns the National Osteoporosis Association.

The charity has described the current eating habits of teenagers and young adults as a 'ticking time bomb' for their bones. Time is running out, it says, for young people to prevent permanent damage.

This is in response to a survey, carried out on behalf of the NOS, which found that 70% of 18-35 year olds are currently, or have previously been, dieting. And 20% of the respondents had cut or significantly reduced dairy in their diets. The charity believes this is due to the popularity of 'clean eating' which sees people cutting out whole food groups from their diet.

The dangers of ditching dairy

Dairy products such as milk, cheese and butter, provide us with calcium. Calcium is vital for building bone strength when you are young.

The foundations of good bone health are built in early adulthood, says the charity, usually before the age of 25. Cutting out food groups during this age could put future bone health at significant risk, and specifically increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, a condition that causes bones to becomes fragile and break easily.

Professor Susan Lanham-New, clinical advisor to the National Osteoporosis Society and Professor of Nutrition at the University of Surrey, said:

"Diet in early adulthood is so important because by the time we get into our late twenties it is too late to reverse the damage caused by poor diet and nutrient deficiencies and the opportunity to build strong bones has passed."

What is osteoporosis?

Half of all women and one in five men develop osteoporosis after the age of 50. Broken bones, also known as fractures, caused by osteoporosis can be very painful and slow to recover from. A poor diet for those in their teens and early twenties now could see a significant rise in the numbers of people suffering fractures and the complications associated with them in the future.

What does an expert think?

We asked nutritional therapist Ian Marber whether he agrees with the warning from the NOS. He says that while people ditching dairy is certainly nothing new (and it's perfectly reasonable if you're vegan or lactose intolerant), in recent years, with bloggers (who are not nutritional experts) promoting clean eating, milk products have become demonised. People have stopped consuming dairy because they think its bad for their health, not because they know they have an intolerance.

"But the clean eaters aren't always well-informed. They say you can get enough calcium from spinach and seeds, but people need to know that these forms of calcium are much harder for the body to absorb than the mineral in cow's milk. You have to eat a lot of leafy greens and seeds to get the same amount."

"It's particularly concerning because the people most affected (and most influenced) by these trends are young girls who really need to lay down their bone density now. But none of us think we're going to get old and none of think we're going to have a problem. But this misinformation is harmful to our future health."

The NOS campaign to improve the nation's bone health, A Message to My Younger Self, is being supported by nutrition expert and skincare guru Liz Earle.The charity is calling on parents to speak to their children about the possible dangers to their bones and is offering support and tips on having a conversation with their children and grandchildren about getting calcium and vitamin D into their diet.

Liz Earle said: "When I was growing up, my meals weren't photographed and shared on social media. The pressure young women are under to match what their idols on Instagram are eating is really high."

Tips for strong bones

It's not necessarily dangerous to cut out dairy from you diet, says Ian, but it is important to make sure you get calcium from other sources. Foods such as bread, cereal, canned fish, nuts, seeds and leafy green vegetables contain calcium - so include lots of these in your diet. Plus many dairy alternatives are also fortified with calcium and vitamin D (also essential for bone health) – so choose these if you can.

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