Today is the last day of National Nutrition Month, and I’d like to touch base on a potentially confusing topic: bone health.
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.
There are two major themes I will discuss here:
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
How to Build Strong Bones:
Believe it not, exercise may have just as much of an impact on your bone health as eating a healthy diet. In other words, you have to do more than just eat well to build + maintain strong bones, you must exercise!Be sure to incorporate weight-bearing exercise into your regular exercise routine. How much is enough? Aim for bone-strengthening activities at least 3 times per week (60 minute sessions).Bone-strengthening activities are exercises that work against gravity and put [good] stress on your bones–think weight lifting, hiking, dancing, jumping rope, jogging, and a wide variety of sports. Activities like swimming + bicycling are not good weight-bearing exercises.You can find more information on exercising for bone health from the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
- Eat a healthy diet with plenty of calcium
Adults need to consume 1,000 mg of calcium each day. Plant-based foods rich in calcium include calcium-fortified beverages like orange juice + plant milks. Calcium-set tofu (check ingredients) is another great source of calcium that is also rich in protein. Collard greens pack a punch of calcium as well. 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.Check out this resource from the Physician’s Committee for Responsible medicine for more calcium-containing plant foods.Calcium isn’t the only nutritional component when it comes to 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 fruits + vegetables will help you reach your nutrient needs to build + maintain healthy bones. Diets high in protein (especially animal protein) + sodium tend to promote calcium loss from bones, so be sure you aren’t overdoing it on either of these nutrients.Here’s more information on diet + bone health from NOS.
- 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. Unless you’re fond of eating fish bones + cod liver oil, you’re likely not consuming much natural vitamin D. Many of us get most of our vitamin D from fortified foods like milks + 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 animal-derived and vitamin D2 is plant-derived. If you’re vegan, make sure your vitamin D supplement is D2.
Lots more information on vitamin D from the National Institutes of Health.