What’s the first thing you think of when you think of strong bones?
If it’s milk, you’re not alone. In fact, billions of dollars have been spent to achieve exactly that – get Americans to think they need milk to build and maintain strong bones.
Is it true that your bones require dietary calcium? Yes. Is it true that cow’s milk contains a good amount of calcium? Yes. Is it true that you need cow’s milk to build strong bones? No.
Two important facts to remember:
1) You can consume plenty of calcium from foods not including cow’s milk
2) Bone health involves way more than getting enough calcium
I’d like to keep the focus of this post on the positive side, but here a few quick reasons why you may not want to get your calcium from cow’s milk:
- You know that consuming cow’s milk supports a cruel + unnecessary industry
- You think it’s gross + unnatural to drink milk as an adult, especially from another animal
- Your stomach gets upset by drinking milk
- You don’t like the taste of cow’s milk
- You prefer to get your calcium from tasty plant-based foods
Engage in Regular Weight-Bearing Exercise
Believe it not, exercise may have just as much of an impact on your bone health as eating nutritiously. In other words, you have to do more than just eat well to build and maintain strong bones.
Explore forms of movement that are weight-bearing. This means any kind of movement that is working against gravity putting stress on your bones (this is a good kind of stress which helps to strengthen our bones).
Bone-strengthening exercises include weight lifting, hiking, dancing, jumping rope, jogging, yoga and body weight strength exercises such as squats and push-ups, as well as a wide variety of sports.
Activities like swimming and bicycling are not weight-bearing exercises and don’t do much for your bones (even though they’re still great for your muscles, joints, heart, lungs and brain!) .You can find more information on exercising for bone health from the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Eat Plenty of Plant-Based Calcium
Adults need to consume 1,000 mg of calcium each day. Plant-based foods rich in calcium include:
- Calcium-fortified plant milks and juices (be sure to check the label because not all plant milks are fortified)
- Calcium-set tofu (check ingredients to see if it’s made with calcium)
- Collard greens, kale, mustard greens, bok choy, turnip greens
Some leafy greens like spinach contain oxalate which significantly lowers how much calcium your body can absorb from the food, so don’t rely on spinach for your calcium.
If you’re not able to meet your calcium needs through foods alone, that’s OK. Consider filling in the gap with a calcium supplement. Remember, you just need to get to 1,000 mg/day total between food and supplements. Do not take more calcium supplements than you need. There is such a thing as too much and it can cause health issues.
Talk with a registered dietitian for personalized guidance on dietary supplements.
Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D
Vitamin D is necessary in order for calcium to do it’s job in respect to bone health. There is debate within the scientific community on how much vitamin D we need (400-1,000 IU/day). Officially, 600 IU is the recommended daily intake of vitamin D.
There are very few foods that naturally contain vitamin D, vegan or not. Many of us get most of our vitamin D from fortified foods like milks and cereals and via the sun.
Vitamin D is nicknamed “the sunshine vitamin” because there is a compound in our skin that when exposed to UV rays, gets metabolized into vitamin D in our bodies. Bad news: if you live anywhere north of Atlanta, you’re likely not getting enough vitamin D from the sun during most of the year due to the angle of the earth in respect to the sun. Many more factors like the amount of time you’re in the sun, how much skin you have exposed, the color of your skin, and cloud cover impact how much vitamin D you can make from the sun.
In other words, many of us may not be able to rely on getting your vitamin D that way. Wearing sunscreen also significantly limits the amount of vitamin D you can make from the sun. Note: you can’t adsorb UVB through glass, so even if the sun is shining on you through the window of your car or office, you can’t make vitamin D from it.
Many Americans don’t get enough vitamin D and many people rely on a vitamin D supplement to help fill the gap. There are two kinds of vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D3 is almost always animal-derived and vitamin D2 is plant-derived. If you’re vegan, make sure your vitamin D supplement is D2. Or a vegan D3 supplement which is made from lichen.
You can find more information on vitamin D from the National Institutes of Health.
Eat a Variety of Plant Foods for Other Important Bone-Building Nutrients
Calcium and vitamin D aren’t the only important nutrients for healthy bones. Other nutrients that are needed for good bone health include phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin K. Eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits will help you reach your nutrient needs to build and maintain healthy bones.
Protein is also important for strong bones, so make sure you’re eating a few servings of legumes every day.