The Harvard School of Public Health Newsletter

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Calcium is important. But milk isn't the only, or even best, source.
It's not a news flash that calcium is key for healthy bones. Getting enough calcium from childhood through adulthood helps build bones up and then helps slow the loss of bone as we age. It's not clear, though, that we need as much calcium as is generally recommended, and it's also not clear that dairy products are really the best source of calcium for most people.

While calcium and dairy can lower the risk of osteoporosis and colon cancer, high intake can increase the risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer.

Plus, dairy products can be high in saturated fat as well as retinol (vitamin A), which at high levels can paradoxically weaken bones.

Good, non-dairy sources of calcium include collards, bok choy, fortified soy milk, baked beans, and supplements that contain both calcium and vitamin D (a better choice than taking calcium alone).

Read more about calcium and milk.

5 quick tips for building strong bones

1. Look beyond the dairy aisle. Limit milk and dairy foods to no more than one or two servings per day. More won't necessarily do your bones any good--and less is fine, as long as you get enough calcium from other sources. Calcium-rich non-dairy foods include leafy green vegetables and broccoli, both of which are also great sources of vitamin K, another key nutrient for bone health. Beans and tofu can also supply calcium.

2. Get your vitamin D
. Vitamin D plays a key role along with calcium in boosting bone health. If you live north of the line connecting San Francisco to Philadelphia and Athens to Beijing, odds are that you will need a multi-vitamin to get enough.  

3. Get active
Regular exercise, especially weight-bearing exercise such as walking or jogging, is an essential part of building and maintaining strong bones.

4. Be careful about getting too much retinol (vitamin A)
. Don't go overboard on fortified milk, energy bars, and breakfast cereals, all of which can be high in bone-weakening vitamin A. Many multivitamin makers have removed much or all retinol and replaced it with beta-carotene, which does not harm bones.

5. Help your kids build strong bones
. Youth and young adulthood is the period when bones build up to their peak strength. Helping youth lead a bone-healthy lifestyle--with exercise, adequate calcium, and adequate vitamin D--can help them keep strong bones through all their adult years.


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