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Milk matters, but bones need more

A study published in Pediatrics showed that along with milk in your diet, you need weight-bearing activity, sunlight, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables to make your bones strong, writes Sanchita Sharma.

health and fitness Updated: Sep 13, 2008 22:39 IST
Sanchita Sharma

For once, grandma got it wrong. Good bone health does not depend upon milk and dairy products alone. A study published in Pediatrics showed that along with milk in your diet, you need weight-bearing activity, sunlight, and a diet rich in fruits and vegetables to make your bones strong.

According to the World Health Organisation, one in two women and one in three men in India over the age of 50 have low bone mass, which can lead to debilitating fractures in later life. Globally, the figures are one in four women and one in five men over the age of 50 years.The trouble is that in India, there is over-emphasis on drinking milk, with most people ignoring other aspects of bone building, such as exercise and vitamin D, which helps transport calcium to the bones. You build maximum bone tissue in your teens and twenties, with physically active teens gaining almost 40 per cent more bone mass than the least active teens of the same age.

Unfortunately, teens and twenees have the worst possible eating habits. They either starve or overdose on junk food, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, all of which can damage bone health if it replaces regular nutrition, which it usually does. With maximum bone development taking place during 11 to 19 years, it is vital that teens reduce future risk of fractures by eating calcium-rich food and exercising.

An essential bone-building nutrient often ignored by people is vitamin D, found in egg yolk, butter, cheese, cod liver oil and other fish liver oils. The human body can also make adequate vitamin D from 30 minutes of sunlight. Most Indians, however, shun the sun and many suffer from vitamin-D deficiency, more so as darker skin is less efficient in producing vitamin D from sunlight into its active form than paler Caucasian skin.

But if your bone density is 10-15 per cent lower than World Health Organisation’s recommended standard deviation for a young adult, don’t panic (you can get a dexa scan done to find out how brittle your bones are). Studies from India have shown that taking vitamin D and calcium — both in its natural form and as a supplement — is enough to prevent osteoporosis-related fractures even if you are not on bone-building medication. Supplementation apart, a diet rich in calcium – found in broccoli, mustard greens, turnip greens, cabbage , salmon, canned sardines, shellfish, almonds, dried beans — brings down fracture risk substantially in people with osteoporosis.

The study also found that people in India over 50 years of age who were agile — measured by their ability to get up from a chair effortlessly — are less likely to have osteoporosis-related fractures than their non-agile counterparts. Ironically, the more you move, the less you are likely to fall and break your bones.