Tradition says that dairy products are good sources of calcium just because they have it; while some modern studies (see below) show that protein digestion produces acidic environment, and body uses calcium from the bones to re-establish the correct pH. These opinions say that dairy products could even be detrimental to bone density and osteoporosis.

So in the end calcium balance is positive or negative from the consumption of dairy products?


Protein metabolism and calcium loss

It was asked in the comments to provide some reference about the "modern studies" relating calcium loss to protein intake.

The specific amino acid profile—especially of amino acids containing sulfur—determines the calciuretic effect of protein. Sulfate generated from the metabolism of these amino acids increases the acidity of the urine, causing greater amounts of calcium to be excreted in the urine. The proteins of many plants, especially legumes, have lower amounts of methionine and cysteine than do animal proteins.

Weaver, C. M., Proulx, W. R., & Heaney, R. (1999). Choices for achieving adequate dietary calcium with a vegetarian diet. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70(3 Suppl), 543S–548S

To date, the accumulated data indicate that the adverse effect of protein, in particular animal (but not vegetable) protein, might outweigh the positive effect of calcium intake on calcium balance.

Amine et al. (2002). Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation.

  • Also, defining what you mean by "effective". A good source? Good bioavailability?
    – JohnP
    Apr 1, 2015 at 18:25
  • Yes JohnP, a combination of both. It wouldn't be much of interest of a food having a lot of calcium if it's not bioavailable. So my questions goes as a "final result", combination of presence of nutrient, bioavailability, minus the effect of acid-base compensation and whatever other interaction that could be useful to answer to this question.
    – Attilio
    Apr 1, 2015 at 22:33
  • So we have Ca²⁺ excretion increasing with excess protein and Ca²⁺ uptake depending on Ca²⁺ bioavailablility (seen as property of the food for the sake of the argument here) and the vitamin D status of the person in question. In addition, lack of excercise causes bone demineralization (or doesn't trigger rebuilding of bones), leading to Ca²⁺ loss again. These points together mean that you cannot state an isolated way whehter milk will lead to net uptake or loss of Ca²⁺: you can easily have situations both ways: a sedentary vitamin D deficient office person may not be able to use milk for ... Sep 22, 2017 at 12:35

3 Answers 3


Dairy products are not the best source of calcium for many reasons.

  • Lactose Intolerance

    • Lactose intolerant people can't have dairy products as they will usually cause various symptoms like diarrhea or cramping
  • High Saturated Fat Content

    • Most dairy products are high in saturated fat, which can be a risk factor for heart disease
    • Milk has been able to cut down on this with reduced fat and fat-free options, but other dairy products, like cheese and ice cream are still very high in fat
  • Cancer Risk

    • Ovarian Cancer - Studies have shown that high intakes of lactose (equal to 2-3 servings of milk) can increase the risk of ovarian cancer1

    • Prostate Cancer - Studies showed inconclusive evidence that some men with a higher calcium intake might have a higher risk of prostate cancer; Evidence was not conclusive; Could also be linked to just calcium rather than dairy products2

Though dairy products are a convenient source, and they are high in protein and vitamins A and D, they are not the best source for calcium. In small amounts, dairy is fine, but there are good alternative sources.

Other sources

  • Leafy green vegetables - kale, spinach, lettuce
  • Beans, legumes, and almonds
  • Calcium supplements

[1] Dairy products and ovarian cancer

[2] Dairy products, calcium and prostate cancer risk

Should You Get Calcium from Milk?

  • 4
    I am not sure I would count Lactose Intolerance a reason that milk isn't a good source for calcium as that doesn't impact people who are not and there is medicine that will allow the processing of it. As for the fat content that can be reduced in most products and again limited by intake of the food.
    – Joe W
    Apr 11, 2015 at 20:49
  • @JoeW Its definitely not the most important thing, but it was worth mentioning
    – michaelpri
    Apr 11, 2015 at 23:43
  • 1
    2 comments: Vitamin D content of dairy products varies, e.g. by continent because of different "habits" wrt. fortification/supplements. Bioavailibility of Ca in vegetables depends a lot on the oxalic acid content of the vegetable in question. E.g. the kale you quote is AFAIK low in oxalic acid and its Ca²⁺ is quite well bioavailable. The spinach OTOH often has enough oxalic acid (de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinat#Inhaltsstoffe) to precipitate 3 times as much Ca²⁺ as it contains as insoluble and bioinavailable Ca-oxalate. IIRC also soy beans are high in oxalic acid. Sep 22, 2017 at 12:21

The issue whether “excess” dietary protein intake adversely affects bone in humans is a subject of current controversy in nutrition(1),(2),(3) with one group concluding that “excess protein will not harm the skeleton if the calcium intake is adequate”(3) and group that “excessive dietary protein from foods with high potential renal acid load (e.g., animal foods) adversely affects bone, unless buffered by the consumption of alkali-rich foods (e.g. vegetable foods)”(1) (quoted by Frassetto 2000).

Other studies reporting better bone health in women with greater protein intakes(4),(5) (high protein intake prevents BMD decrease). Further, the Munger study reported that higher intakes of animal sources of dietary protein were associated with a 70% reduction in hip fracture, even after controlling for major confounding variables (Hannan 2000).

Read more: Calcium, BMD and Osteoporosis

In overall it's difficult to say whether calcium intake has positive or negative effect from the consumption of dairy products on our bones, based on the sample size and subject characteristics of the studies, so more studies needs to be conducted.


  1. Barzel US, Massey LK. Excess dietary protein can adversely affect bone. J Nutr. 1998;128:1051–1053.
  2. Massey LK. Does excess dietary protein adversely affect bone? Symposium overview. J Nutr. 1998;128:1048–1050.
  3. Heaney RP. Excess dietary protein may not adversely affect bone. J Nutr. 1998;128:1054–1057.
  4. Freudenheim et al.(46, Freudenheim JL, Johnson NE, Smith EL 1986
  5. 47, Munger Cerhan JR, Chiu BC 1999 Prospective study of dietary protein intake and risk of hip fracture in postmenopausal women.
  • 1
    "natural dairy products are natural and best source of it" No proof, and irrelevant to the question either way. Don't sneak generalities like that into your posts. This is why I'm very wary that you have so much reputation. Please be focused with addressing the question at hand and do not make generalizations or claims that you don't provide information to support.
    – Dave Liu
    Feb 16, 2016 at 0:22

First of all, I'm not sure whether the question is answerable at all without a more detailed scenario.

So we have:

  • Ca²⁺ excretion increasing with excess protein
    This seems to be linked to elimination of excess acids rather than directly to protein according to http://jn.nutrition.org/content/141/3/391.long.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15546911 finds the additional excretion coming from the increased intake under high protein diet.

  • Ca²⁺ uptake/loss in bones (which is typically the main point of the Ca uptake/loss discussion, and bone is a large researvoir of Ca in the human body):
    bone (re)building needs:

    • Ca²⁺
    • protein
      (we're talking here high/excess protein diets, so let's assume this is not a limiting factor)
    • mechanical stimulation (excercise)
  • if you are in a situation with (primarily) net loss of bone because of any of the 3 ingredients to bone growth above (e.g. lack of excercise even though Ca and protein are available), you'll observe a net Ca loss, because Ca released from the bone that (naturally) broken down is excreted.

  • Ca²⁺ uptake from food depends on

Taking those points together, we may construct 2 extreme lifestyles that would react quite opposite to the linked intake of protein + calcium in milk:

  • On the one hand, imagine a sedentary indoors couch potato. No sun (low vitamin D), no excercise (no bone growth stimulus). Without adequate vitamin D levels, the Ca in the milk (although in principle bioavailable) is not even absorbed in the gut. Even if it were (or: even the little that is) is not used for net new bone growth as the excercise stimulus is missing. With a high protein diet (or, a diet causing excess acid urinary excretion), Ca is lost. It may have been lost even without a high protein diet because of bone loss due to lack of excercise. Or, with a low excess acid diet, bone would have been maintained even with the low level of excercise.

  • On the other hand, consider a physically active outdoors person. Excercise gives a bone growth stimulus, sunlight does its share in supplying vitamin D. In that scenario, milk gives the protein as well as the Ca to actually grow bone. Result is a net gain in Ca, even though some Ca is excreted via urine.

Slightly off topic: this whole scenario feels a bit like a 101 in how to lie with statistics without actually lying: we have at least 4-5 factors that need to be at the right setting (and for 4 of them it is comparatively easy to be off) in order to achieve bone growth/net Ca gain. Now any study looking at a single factor will not find an effect unless they make sure all other factors are right. And if one factor is worse with the treatment group than the controls, a study may even seem to observe the opposite of what is really going on.

I tried to find numbers for Ca²⁺ excretion per gram of protein. A rough guesstimate based on http://jn.nutrition.org/content/128/6/1051.full would be up to 200 mg Ca²⁺ urinary excretion for 150 g of protein consumption. Based on that rough guesstimate, food with a ratio > 1.33 mg Ca/g of protein would be considered as "gaining Ca²⁺".

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milk#Nutrition_and_health gives cow milk with 30 - 35 g protein / l and 1200 mg Ca²⁺/l, yielding a Ca : protein ratio of > 30 mg Ca/g of protein. Even assuming just the average absorption rate for Ca in food of 30 % (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/35/4/783.extract - didn't find numbers for milk, though it is frequently cited as highly bioavailable - but then it will also depend on other factors) that leaves almost an order of magnitude to the side of more Ca uptake than increase in excretion.

So overall, this back-of-the-envelope calculation is in favor of milk being a net source of Ca. Note however, that not all dairy products have the same Ca:protein ratio as milk. E.g. Whey has even more Ca:protein, and consequently the cheese of which whey is a leftover/side product has a somewhat lower Ca:protein ratio.

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