It's always been a pet peeve of mine that "calcium" is synonymous with "bone health." There's no question that bone is predominantly calcium and that dietary calcium is important. However, there are so many other factors that are crucial to bone health, but they don't get all that much attention. This is probably due to the Dairy Council's fine job at convincing most Americans that without dairy products and all that calcium, they can't possibly have strong bones. Nutrition experts know that this is ridiculous; dairy products are just one food (essentially milk from a cow), and cultures worldwide and for thousands of years have enjoyed superior bone health without a spec of dairy. Dairy farming is a relatively recent advent in history, and not practiced by all cultures. Furthermore, we know that dairy is not the secret to osteoporosis prevention, because the countries with the highest intakes of dairy products also have the highest osteoporosis rates. Calcium is abundant in whole plant foods; we don't NEED dairy products to get calcium.
Want strong bones? It's not only the calcium you take IN that matters, it is important not to LOSE the calcium that you have. And it turns out that if you're doing all the wrong things and you're LOSING calcium from your bones, all the calcium pills in the world won't do much for you. You have to RETAIN that calcium, and the best way to promote calcium retention is to practice those habits that make the most difference. These include:
EXERCISE. Weight-bearing exercise is the cornerstone of bone density. Even seniors can build bone mass by doing regular, moderate exercises. Indeed, studies have shown tremendous benefit to certain exercises with regard to reduced risk of fractures. Free weights, running, walking are all good bone-building activities. Swimming and biking are great cardio workouts but aren't good bone-builders; mix up your routine for the best results.
MAXIMIZE FRUITS AND VEGETABLES. A recent study out of Boston published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism showed that forcing an alkaline environment in the gut promoted bone retention, while an acidic environment promoted bone loss. This relationship has been known for some time, but this study actually measured the results in a methodical fashion. The authors suggest that increasing fruit and vegetable intake will naturally help lean the environment more alkaline, helping to retain bone mass. Yup, ANOTHER benefit to eating lots of fruits and vegetables! Foods like meat and dairy promote acidic environments, leading to bone loss.
MINIMIZE ANIMAL PROTEIN AND SODIUM. Both have been linked to calcium excretion.
TAKE A VITAMIN D SUPPLEMENT. The research keeps pouring in about vitamin D. Vegan or not, take 1000 IU a day. Vitamin D is absolutely crucial for bone health; indeed the #1 symptom of vitamin D deficiency is rickets, which is a bone disease. Furthermore, studies have shown that supplementing with D reduces fracture risk. See vitamindhealth.org for more information.
EAT YOUR SALAD. Vitamin K is an important vitamin for bone health. It is found mostly in leafy green vegetables (raw or cooked, doesn't matter). Potassium, a mineral found in abundance in most fruits and vegetables, is also important. Do you see a pattern?
Getting back to my point that calcium intake is still important, the best vegan calcium sources include leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified soy milk and OJ, and some dried fruits. Base your diet on a nice variety among the Basic 4 (whole grains, nuts/beans/seeds, fruits, and vegetables), and follow the guidelines above, and you're well on your way to optimal bone health.