New Study Challenges Importance of Dairy For Menopausal Women

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Key Takeaways

  • Women going through menopause experience hormonal changes that may cause bone breakdown.
  • An observational study found consuming more dairy foods made no difference in bone mineral density or fracture risk in menopausal women.
  • Most women in the study were not consuming the recommended three servings of dairy per day.

Despite the importance of calcium for bone health, a new study shows menopausal women are not protected from bone fractures or low bone density even when consuming dairy.

The study, published on August 20 in The Journal of the North American Menopause Society, found that 1,955 premenopausal or menopausal women who consumed varying amounts of dairy per day all had similar risks of bone breaks over the course of 10 years.

Dietitians are skeptical of these findings.

“This study suggests an association; it is not a randomized clinical trial that proves cause and effect, and it’s not a study that makes us want to recommend women avoid dairy,” Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and co-author of The Menopause Diet Plan, tells Verywell. 

Even study researchers acknowledge their outcomes seem inconsistent with other data. Taylor Wallace, PhD, CFS, FACN, a study investigator, thinks that because dairy intake in these women was fairly low overall, the results are comparing “low intake to low intake.” Most women in the study did not meet the three servings of dairy per day recommended in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In fact, 65% reported consuming less than 1.5 servings of dairy per day.

Study participants were tasked with recalling their dairy intake the year prior to the study, as well as self-reporting their dairy intake throughout the study. Wallace says that because it’s difficult for people to fully recall and report their dietary intake, the dietary data in the study may not be fully accurate.

Women require 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, and their needs increase to 1,200 milligrams per day during the postmenopausal years to help support bone health. One 8-ounce serving of dairy milk provides approximately 300 milligrams of calcium whether it is skim, whole, or anything in between.

Researchers Still Think Dairy Matters For Bone Health

Maintaining bone mass is important, especially as you age. During perimenopause, estrogen levels naturally dip, potentially contributing to bone breakdown. This can ultimately lead to an increased risk of fracture and osteoporosis, a condition in which bones become weak and brittle.

One of the best ways to maintain good bone health is by eating a healthy diet. Dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt naturally contain the calcium necessary for strong bones, along with other bone-supporting nutrients like protein, vitamin D, potassium, and magnesium. According to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, the protein and potassium found in dairy—not just calcium—play a role in a bone-healthy diet.

Many experts agree that dairy foods support bone health. “With the exception of fortified soy beverages, plant milks cannot compare to dairy milk in terms of nutrition, especially when it comes to protein,” Ward says. “Most mid-life women don’t get enough protein, which they also need to maintain and build muscle.”

The type of dairy consumed may be the most important part.

“The study authors did not have information about what type of dairy foods the women in the study ate and that could have an impact on bone mineral density,” Ward says. “For example, all milk is fortified with vitamin D, which is necessary for calcium absorption. Most yogurt, and all hard cheese, contain no added vitamin D. So, even the highest consumers of dairy foods could have a shortfall of vitamin D.”

Wallace adds that consuming excessive caffeine, added sugar, and/or alcohol may offset the bone-building benefits of dairy consumption. So instead of grabbing an extra-grande pumpkin spice latte, consider a warm glass of milk instead. Your bones may thank you for it. 

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