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8 January 2007
Osteoporosis And The Cola Connection
by Serena Mackesy

The FDA reminded us this week that dairy is a Good Thing. After years of being so scared of fat that we practically cross ourselves at the sight of a carton of cream, this reminder simply underscores the fashion cycles that foodstuffs go through. Foods which have supported past populations for millennia are regularly dropped and sometimes take decades before they are rehabilitated in the eyes of the population. It's interesting to note, however, that the FDA never, in fact, suggested that dairy should disappear from our diets. It took faddish diet gurus to do that.

So what's the upshot? Milk, cheese and yoghurt are, in fact, not "cholesterol time-bombs." Convenience foods packed with saturated fats like palm oil are cholesterol time-bombs. Deep-frying everything is a cholesterol no-no. A diet of untrimmed red meat and buttered potatoes probably won't do your arteries a lot of good. But for women, you'd be well advised to slip three helpings of dairy in along with your five servings of fruit and veg every day. And for your own sake, stop drinking cola.

The reason for this? Osteoporosis. Though, obviously, you don't want to keel over with a heart attack before you can get it, an old age consisting of regular bone-snaps is really not something you want to be looking forward to. Osteoporosis is a condition in which the bone cells are replaced at a slower rate than that at which they are lost, leading, over time, to extreme fragility and repeated fractures, mainly - or at least most seriously - in the hip and spine as well as the wrist and other parts of the skeleton.

Though men do get it, it is four times as common in women. It is associated with long-term use of corticosteroid medication, smoking, heavy drinking, early menopause, sedentary lifestyle, and, surprisingly, low body weight, as well as, interestingly, over-exercising. And, recently, it has been unarguably demonstrated that consumption of more than four cans of cola a week results in a significant loss of bone density among women (though not, oddly, in men). That classic image of the skinny fashion model replacing her midday meal with a fag and a tin of diet cola to rehydrate after a night on the fizz as she leaves the gym after her two-hour workout is, in fact, almost a caricature of the osteoporosis-sufferer-in-waiting.

The cola thing is worrying. Mind you, I've always suspected it was the devil's beverage. In the past it was thought that the association was merely a result of cola replacing dairy in women's diets, but recent studies have shown that this is not the case. Suspicion now falls on the drink's phosphoric acid content, though no-one's yet entirely sure how the mechanism works. Other theories are that it changes the acid levels in the blood, which leaches calcium from the bones in an attempt to even it up again, or that some constituent of it blocks the uptake of dietary calcium. Whatever, the results don't lie. A woman who wants to be dancing in her seventies would be well advised to cut back on the cola and drink half-a-pint of semi-skimmed milk instead.

The basic recipe for avoiding osteoporosis is calcium, vitamin D and regular, but not excessive, weight-bearing exercise. Pretty much, then, what the health industry, bar the odd blip, has been recommending for millennia. The human body wasn't made to sit about watching television all day every day, and, though the body is surprisingly capable of surviving during periods of famine, it isn't good to cut out entire food groups. The reason the FDA recommends dairy is because of the unique calcium-D nutritional whammy it offers, which simply isn't represented in any one other convenient package. Vitamin D, for instance, is fat soluble, which means that those espousing the zero-fat approach to food are putting themselves at risk. You can get calcium from a nice dark leafy salad and D from oily fish, eggs and liver, but none of these is as easy to get down as a glass of good old moo-juice.

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