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Milk - The superfood for building healthy bones

June 25, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

It's a lesson many learn early in life: Drink milk to build strong, healthy bones. Moms and dads recognize the importance of milk, which is rich in calcium and other nutrients, in their growing kids' diet.

Unfortunately, that message often is forgotten later in life.

Approximately 1.5 million people suffer bone fractures every year due to osteoporosis - weakening or thinning of the bones. This number is expected to increase dramatically as more baby boomers enter their 60s.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture publishes a Healthy Eating Index to measure the overall quality of Americans' diets. The USDA currently reports that only 12 percent of the population consumes good diets; the biggest shortfall is in eating calcium-rich dairy foods. People naturally lose bone mass as they age. The critical factor is whether people have amassed sufficient bone mass in their early years to carry them through their golden years.

The more bone mass we develop as children, the more protection we'll have as seniors.

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Milk still is one of the best-recognized foods for building strong bones. It is a food that has the greatest number of nutrients - calcium, phosphorous, vitamin D and protein - packaged together to promote bone health.

One of the most sobering things we're finding is that teenagers, who are in the prime of their bone-building lives, are breaking their bones when engaging in sports and other activities. Researchers think one of the reasons is that teens might not be drinking enough milk.

As they gain independence, teens begin preparing some of their own meals, and don't often include calcium-rich foods. When youngsters are faced with vending machine or convenience store choices, it just might not be cool to order milk.

Some of the other reasons people are getting less calcium in their diets include:

· Adolescents and adults are watching their weight and skipping meals.

· People aren't making time to eat breakfast.

· Families are eating fewer meals together, so parents don't have an opportunity to model good eating practices.

· Older adults consume less food and, thus, get fewer nutrients.

The USDA's MyPyramid: Steps to a Healthier You (at www.mypyramid.gov) can help people get the nutrition they need to build healthy bones. But Americans also need a weight-bearing exercise, such as running or walking, at least 30 minutes for adults and 60 minutes for children on most days of the week. In order to sustain peak bone mass, we have to have weight-bearing physical activity regularly.

If members of your family are not milk drinkers, here are some things you can do:

· Add powdered milk to casseroles, soups, gravies, sauces and puddings.

· Sprinkle cheese on salads, soups, chili and baked potatoes.

· Prepare hot cereals with milk instead of water.

· Put milk in coffee.

· Serve green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified juices and cereals.

Juices fortified with calcium can also help preserve bone health. These products do not necessarily contain other important nutrients typically found in milk, such as protein, vitamin D and phosphorous. Calcium-fortified juices are a calcium supplement, so keep in mind they are part of the package for bone health and good nutrition. They are not a substitute for milk.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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