Nutrition Lab: Milk, Soft Drinks and Bone Strength

Want strong bones? Eat foods high in calcium and vitamin D, get plenty of exercise — and maybe steer clear of soda.

In recent decades, as consumption of the beverage has steadily displaced the consumption of others —particularly milk — studies have consistently linked soda consumption with weaker bones. Now scientists are trying to figure out how and why, precisely, drinking soda may affect skeletons.

One theory is that a component in cola may cause bone to deteriorate; another is that people who drink soda simply drink (and eat) fewer nutritious foods.

In the 1990s, several studies suggested soft-drink consumption might be linked to lower bone mass and reduced bone accretion — the process by which bone is built up — in children, especially teens.

In a study of 127 teens that was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 1994, teenage girls who drank carbonated beverages were three times as likely to suffer bone fractures compared with girls who didn’t drink soda. A study by the same author published in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine in 2000 showed the same effect — and an even stronger one for girls who drank cola beverages, who were five times as likely to suffer bone fractures.

Researchers surmised at the time that soda took its toll on bones because children who drank soda did so in place of milk. Soda drinking was also seen as a marker for a generally unhealthful diet lacking items that help foster strong bones.

It does seem to be true that soda drinkers have worse diets overall. In a study published this month in the Journal of the American Dietetic Assn., for example, among 170 girls followed from age 5 to 15, those who drank soda at age 5 were less likely to drink milk throughout childhood than 5-year-olds who did not drink soda. And they were more likely to consume diets lacking in calcium, fiber, vitamin D, protein, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium.

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