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Perplexity about Calcium and Osteoporosis

Our bones are constructed from two primary materials: proteins, which form a kind of scaffolding, and calcium phosphate, which acts as a hard, mineralized, strengthening filler. Bone tissue is constantly being deconstructed and rebuilt throughout our adult lives, so healthy bones require adequate protein and calcium supplies from our diet.

Many women in industrialized countries lose so much bone mass after menopause that they’re at high risk for serious fractures. Dietary calcium clearly helps prevent this potentially dangerous loss, or osteoporosis. Milk and dairy products are the major source of calcium in dairying countries, and U.S. government panels have recommended that adults consume the equivalent of a quart (liter) of milk daily to prevent osteoporosis.

This recommendation represents an extraordinary concentration of a single food, and an unnatural one — remember that the ability to drink milk in adulthood, and the habit of doing so, is an aberration limited to people of northern European descent. A quart of milk supplies two-thirds of a day’s recommended protein, and would displace from the diet other foods — vegetables, fruits, grains, meats, and fish — that provide their own important nutritional benefits.

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And there clearly must be other ways of maintaining healthy bones. Other countries, including China and Japan, suffer much lower fracture rates than the United States and milk-loving Scandinavia, despite the fact that their people drink little or no milk.

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So it seems prudent to investigate the many other factors that influence bone strength, especially those that slow the deconstruction process (see box, p. 15). The best answer is likely to be not a single large white bullet, but the familiar balanced diet and regular exercise

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