Forget the calcium conspiracies; there’s plenty of way to maintain healthy bones on a vegan diet. Veronika Powell of Viva!Health gives us the facts:
We’ve all heard that children need milk and dairy products to grow up big and strong and grownups
need them to have healthy bones. But is this true? Well, no. It’s the dairy industry’s most successful myth and you have to wonder how this simple marketing fib has managed to penetrate our education system all the way up to university level.
When it comes to bone health, dairy products certainly aren’t the bone-building wonder foods the dairy industry wants us to believe. Countries with the highest dairy consumption also have the highest rates of osteoporosis and fragility fractures. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls this the ‘calcium paradox’.
We do need calcium (adults 700mg per day, children a bit less, adolescents and lactating women slightly more) but we can easily get enough from non-dairy sources.
Good calcium sources:
• Green leafy vegetables
• Broccoli, kale, spring greens, cabbage,
• Dried fruit
• Figs and apricots
• Nuts and seeds
• Almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds and
tahini (sesame seed paste)
• Peas, beans, lentils, soya and calciumset
tofu (soya bean curd)
• Enriched products
• Plant milks (soya, oat, coconut, rice, etc.)
Vitamin D is also essential for bone maintenance and your skin produces enough in the summer (when exposed to the sun) but during the winter months, you might need to take a supplement or choose foods enriched with it.
But we need much more to produce strong bones. Nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, selenium, zinc, copper, boron, iron, vitamin K, vitamin C, B group, beta carotene (vitamin A) are also needed — but don’t panic! Fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, pulses and wholegrains are the best sources for these nutrients. By now you might be getting a pretty good mental image of what kind of diet is best for your bones — but there’s more to it.
Acid vs alkali
Everything we eat or drink is either acid or alkali forming and our body needs to keep its fine-tuned balance. Animal protein (meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) produces significant volumes of acid compared to plant protein. The main way this acid is neutralised in your body is by using calcium from the blood, muscles and ironically our bones! This is a major problem because the calcium lost from our skeleton cannot be easily replaced; it has to be gradually built back in. Dairy products come with their own burden of animal protein and the large quantities of calcium they contain can’t be instantly absorbed and much is lost in urine.
On the other hand, alkali producing foods are not only good for your bones; they are good for your overall health. What are they? The same foods that are good sources of all of the nutrients we need for healthy bones — no coincidence there. So stock up on vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds (almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seed and flaxseed), lentils, butter beans, tofu, etc. Many grains are also alkali producing or in the ‘neutral’ zone — millet, quinoa, spelt, wild rice and buckwheat. So what you want to be aiming for is a vegan diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables and all the good things listed above.
Doubtful? Let’s look at the science. Studies show that people who eat the most animal protein have up to four times higher bone loss compared to people who eat none or only tiny amounts. Animal protein is consistently shown to be bad for the bones whilst plant protein does not have the same effect. In fact, people whose diets are high in fruit and vegetables have the healthiest bones.
One last thing — bone adapts to the weight and pressure applied to it and it needs this sort of stimulation to stay strong. There’s no need to sweat your socks off but moderate weight-bearing exercise is a must. This means walking, carrying shopping bags, dancing, gardening, ball games, jogging, yoga, weight-lifting exercise, etc.
12 top tips for getting healthy bones
- Always snack on fresh fruit and vegetables — aim for at least four as just snacks.
- Add fresh fruit to your natural, unsweetened muesli.
- Keep a small box of nuts and dried fruit in your bag to snack on.
- Make or buy fresh smoothies rather than juice (juice can be little more than just
- Start using almond butter — it’s healthy, a good calcium source and can be spread on just about anything!
- Soya yoghurt with chopped, dried and fresh fruit can be a great snack.
- Avocados are a great source of energy — slice them for sandwiches or blend with beans or chickpeas into a spread.
- Always add vegetables to main dishes and/or have a salad on the side.
- Add tahini (sesame paste) to make sauces creamy (one tablespoon per two portions).
- Tofu stir fries are a great, quick dinner.
- Make beans, chickpeas and lentils the main stars of your stews, soups (blend them if necessary), chillis, pasta and Indian meals. Add to salads and use them puréed as sauce bases.
- Make fruit a staple in your desserts — dipped in dark chocolate, frozen and blended into ice cream or layered with chopped nuts and coconut yoghurt.
Want to know more?
Building bones for life is a handy guide offering nutritional guidance for building strong bones and teeth in children, advice on how to prevent and treat osteoporosis, menu plans and easy and gorgeous recipes for both children and adults. This, and lots more helpful info on building bones on a vegan diet, as well as the damage done by eating animal products, is at vivahealth.org.uk/bones