The importance of calcium and dairy foods in bone health

Dairy consumption is an important determinant of bone health. Calcium, one of the main minerals found in dairy foods such as milk, yoghurt and cheese is the main building block of bones that combines with other minerals (like phosphorus) to form hard crystals that give bones their strength. The body can’t create calcium so must acquire it from the diet. If not enough calcium-rich foods are consumed, calcium will be taken from the bones to be used for other body functions, and over time bones will become weak and brittle, leading to osteoporosis.1

The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommends the consumption of dairy foods every day.2 Milk, yoghurt and cheese provide a convenient and readily absorbable source of calcium, contributing around 60% of the calcium in the diet and research has shown that dairy foods are important for bone health and bone growth.3 For children with low calcium intakes, dairy consumption has been shown to favourably impact bone mineral content,4 while a longitudinal study of 106 children showed an average of two or more servings of dairy each day resulted in significantly better bone health in the teenage years.5

Australians have been found to not consume enough dairy foods.6 Despite its importance, calcium, is the nutrient that Australian children most commonly miss out on, with more than half of 9–16 year olds not getting their recommended amount.7 Men and women are also not consuming enough calcium.

Some people may be mistakenly missing out on having enough dairy foods as they are watching their weight, however contrary to popular belief, enjoying three to four serves of milk, yoghurt and cheese every day is not linked to weight gain. For people looking to lose weight, including three to four serves of milk, yoghurt and cheese in a reduced-kilojoule diet can actually help accelerate weight and fat loss and shrink waistlines8 as well as contributing to bone health.

Protein and other essential nutrients for bone health

Dairy foods are also a good source of protein, another nutrient which plays an important role in bone health as it helps build and repair bone tissue and muscles. As people become older, protein requirements increase to help maintain bone and muscle mass and reduce hip fractures.9

Dairy foods also contain a range of essential nutrients for bone health, including phosphorus, magnesium and zinc and it is for this reason the consumption of dairy foods over calcium supplementation is preferable.10 Other non-dairy sources of calcium can be consumed, such as green leafy vegetables, nuts and cereals, however some plant foods contain phytates and oxalates that can interfere with calcium absorption.11

How to improve more dairy foods every day to improve bone health

With a wide variety of dairy foods available, it’s easy to enjoy the recommended amount every day:

  • Include yoghurt on cereal at breakfast time

  • Grab a latte on the way to work

  • Try ricotta cheese in a salad sandwich

  • Have a smoothie or milkshake for afternoon tea

  • For a creamy soup, stir in a generous splash of milk

  • Mix together spreadable cream cheese and vanilla bean yoghurt, then layer with nuts and berries for a dessert

  • Serve curries with a generous dollop of yoghurt

  • Toss steamed potato wedges in parmesan cheese before roasting for a great side dish or snack.

For more healthy meal ideas check out the Recipes & Meal Planners page.

1 Osteoporosis Australia. What is Osteoporosis? [Internet]. Osteoporosis Australia, Glede, 2014 Available from:

2 National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2013.

3 Dror DK and Allen LH. Dairy product intake in children and adolescents in developed countries: trends, nutritional contribution, and a review of association with health outcomes. Nutr Rev. 2014;72(2):68-81.

4 Huncharek M, Muscat J, Kupelnick, B. Impact of dairy products and dietary calcium on bone-mineral content in children: results of a meta-analysis. Bone. 2008;43(2):312-21.

5 Moore LL et al. Effects of average childhood dairy intake on adolescent bone health. J Pediatr. 2008;153(5):667-73.

6 Doidge JC, Segal L. Most Australians do not meet recommendations for dairy consumption: findings of a new technique to analyse nutrition surveys. Aust N Z J Pub Health. 2012;36(3):236-40.

7 Australian Bureau of Statistics [Internet]. Canberra: ABS; 2015. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results - Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Calcium. Cat 4364.0.55.007. Available:

8 Abargouei AS, Janghorbani M, Salehi-Marzijarani M, Esmaillzadeh A. Effect of dairy consumption on weight and body composition in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. Int J Obes. 2012;36(12):1485-93.

9 Ebeling P, Daly R, Kerr D, Kimlin M. Building bones throughout life: an evidence-informed strategy to prevent osteoporosis in Australia. Med J Aust. 2013;199(7 Supp):S1.

10 Heaney RP (2009). Dairy and bone health. J Am Coll Nutr. 28(Suppl 1):82S-90S.

11 Weaver CM, Proulx WR, Heaney R. Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999; 70(3 Suppl): 543-8S.