Boosting Bone Health Without Dairy – Part 1: The Facts
By: Dr. Tamara Kung, ND
If you grew up with the milk mustache ads which equated strong bones with drinking milk, you may have a nagging worry that going dairy free may jeopardize your bone health.
The whole idea of milk for bones is a marketing program,” says Neal Barnard, MD FACC, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and author of Your Body in Balance: The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health. “All of our biological cousins – chimpanzees, gorillas, and some of the biggest and strongest animals don’t eat ice cream, yogurt or depend on glasses of milk, and they don’t have osteoporosis either.
Dairy has been touted as the optimal source for calcium, the mineral with its starring role in bone strengthening and minimizing age-related bone loss. But contrary to popular belief, cows don’t have a monopoly on calcium, plants are actually the natural source of calcium. A cow’s favorite meal, grass, absorbs all the calcium from the soil as do other leafy greens such as Brussels sprouts, collards, and mustard greens, making them rich sources of calcium. Other foods such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and tofu, provide calcium in smaller amounts that add up.
When you look around the world, especially in places like Asia and Africa where people don’t historically consume dairy, every culture has found a place to get calcium in their diet, and shows that it is possible to have healthy bones without dairy.
This is great news and important to understand because numerous studies have linked dairy to increased health risks, including asthma, heart disease, breast and prostate cancer, and endometrial cancer.
In a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, a review article titled “Milk and Health,” by Harvard Medical School concluded that calcium obtained from plant foods such as kale, broccoli, tofu, nuts, and beans without the potential harm that comes from dairy. Their report also found that the scientific evidence does not support the belief that high dairy consumption reduces bone fractures.
Having enough calcium and vitamin D is critical, but these minerals are not the magic bullet. Scientists now know that it is the complex mix of minerals and vitamins that work synergistically to maximize bone health. These include protein, vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin B6, 12, folate, phosphorus, iron, silicon, sodium, magnesium, potassium, copper, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. Plant-based eaters are off the charts on many of these bone-loving nutrients and get more of them than the average person – except for vitamin B12 and possibly vitamin D.
Therefore, we can boost our bone health by eating a variety of plant foods.
The types of food you put into your body will trigger your blood’s environment to either favor the rapid breakdown OR rebuilding of bone. A diet that is abundant in fruits and vegetables creates antioxidant rich, and anti-inflammatory conditions which slows the rate of bone loss and promotes stronger bones. Packaged and processed foods like chips, baked goods, dairy products, and refined breads, sweetened beverages, contain additives like sodium phosphate and calcium phosphate which can leach calcium from bones, and also cause inflammation which further leads to bone break down.
Some foods are better sources of calcium than others due to high levels of oxalates, a natural substance in food that binds to calcium during digestion and can prevent its absorption. Great absorbable calcium sources include broccoli, kale, bok choy, collard greens, watercress, turnip greens, calcium-set tofu, and fortified plant-milks. Because of the high oxalate levels in spinach, beet greens, and swiss chard, the bioavailability (absorption) of calcium is lower, but they provide plenty of other beneficial nutrients.
It was discovered that only a third of the calcium in milk (cow’s or plant-based) is absorbed, while most of the calcium in low-oxalate greens are absorbed.
In part 2 of this topic, supplements will be looked at to see whether they make sense in this picture.