Better bone health: The truth behind the dairy myth

Read Time:   |  15th August 2016

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Viva! Health’s Veronika Powell shows us that we can get all the calcium our bodies need from a vegan diet when we eat the right things…

How to get better bone health on a vegan diet

We’ve heard it all before – children need milk and dairy products to grow up big and strong and grown-ups need them to have healthy bones. That’s what the dairy industry have been selling us for decades, but the truth is we don’t need milk for healthy bones at all!

When it comes to bone health, dairy products certainly aren’t any wonder foods. Countries with the highest dairy consumption also have the highest rates of osteoporosis and fragility fractures. The World Health Organization (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.   

Topping up

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.

Still, we need much more than calcium and vitamin D 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. By now you might be getting a pretty good image of what kind of diet is
the best for your bones. But there’s more to it!

Healthy alternatives

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 even the skeleton. This is a major problem because the calcium lost from the bones 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 the nutrients we need for healthy bones – what a coincidence! So stock up on vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, 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 need to be aiming for is a vegan diet full of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Doubtful? OK, what does the science say? 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, while plant protein does not have the same effect. In fact, people whose diets are high in fruit and vegetables have the healthiest bones.


Running for the bus

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.

So stock up on vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds (almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds 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 below:

Good calcium sources:
  • Green leafy vegetables -Broccoli, kale, spring greens, cabbage, parsley, watercress
  • Dried fruit -Figs and apricots
  • Nuts and seeds -Almonds, brazil nuts, sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste)
  • Pulses -Peas, beans, lentils, soya and calcium-set tofu (soya bean curd)
  • Enriched products -Plant milks (soya, oat, coconut, rice, etc.)

Organic chia seeds


Tips to make your diet work better for your bones:
  • Always snack on fresh fruit and vegetables (unlimited) – aim for four portions just as snacks.

  • Add fresh fruit to your natural muesli (unsweetened).

  • 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 sweet water).

  • Start using almond butter – it’s healthier, 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 an excellent 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), chilli, 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 vegan ice cream, or layered with chopped nuts and coconut yoghurt.

Further info

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.

Written by

Veronika Charvatova

Veronika Charvátová MSc is a biologist and Viva! Health researcher. Veronika has spent years uncovering the links between nutrition and good health and is an expert on plant-based diets.

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