21/10/2013 07:50 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Beat Osteoporosis: Break Your Dairy Addiction

World Osteoporosis Day, 20 October, might not be as exciting as St Patrick's Day, or even Pancake Day, but it's important nonetheless. An estimated three million people in the UK suffer from osteoporosis, a condition which can lead to serious and sometimes disabling fractures. According to the National Osteoporosis Society, about 1,150 people die every month in the UK from complications resulting from hip fractures. It costs more than £2.3 billion a year - approximately £6 million a day - to care for people with osteoporosis-related hip fractures.

But don't start gulping down cows' milk. Osteoporosis isn't caused by inadequate milk consumption. It's caused, in part, by consuming excess animal protein, sodium and caffeine.

The results of an 18-year Harvard Nurses' Health Study involving nearly 78,000 women aged 34 to 59 show that women who drink three or more glasses of milk a day get no protection at all from bone fractures by comparison with women who drink little to no milk. Another study, which was published in the British Medical Journal in 2011, found that the people who consumed the most calcium had higher rates of hip fractures than those who consumed less as well as similar rates of osteoporosis. Researchers followed more than 61,000 women for a 19-year period and found no significant benefit to consuming more than 700 milligrams of calcium a day.

In other words, calcium intake alone does not protect against osteoporosis, and low calcium intake does not signify a bone-fracture risk.

That's not to say that calcium isn't important, though. To maintain strong bones, we should avoid animal protein and consume calcium from healthy plant-based sources. Beans and greens, including kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, are especially rich in calcium as well as magnesium, potassium and other essential nutrients. Tofu, almonds, butternut squash, figs and oats are also healthful calcium sources. Although the optimal calcium intake is unclear, it makes sense to aim for at least 600 milligrams of calcium each day. That's easy to do.

We should also get plenty of vitamin D since it helps our bodies absorb and retain calcium. Your body will often produce all the vitamin D that it needs if you get enough sunlight each day, but you should take a vitamin D supplement if you don't get much sun exposure or if you have darker skin or are older. You can also get vitamin D - without the saturated fat and cholesterol found in cows' milk - from fortified soya and rice milks, orange juice and cereals.

Since sodium and caffeine - like animal protein - can cause the body to excrete calcium, avoid salty snacks and canned foods with added sodium, and minimise both salt use and consumption of caffeinated beverages, such as coffee and black tea. Inactivity and tobacco also contribute to calcium loss, which is another reason why it's wise to exercise regularly and not to smoke.

We can't change all our risk factors for osteoporosis - such as our family history, age, sex and bone size - but we can change our lifestyle habits. If you break your addiction to animal protein, salt and caffeine now, you'll be less likely to end up with broken bones and fractures in the future.