Top Tips for Great Bones (That Aren’t All About Calcium)
We are taught that the more calcium (read: milk) you ingest, the healthier your bones. While we absolutely do need calcium in our diets, is milk really the only (or best) source? And is calcium the only thing that keeps our bones healthy? Well. The straightforward answer is no, (no), and no.
Why do we need calcium?
Calcium is a naturally-occurring mineral ingested by all animals originally through plants. For humans, calcium helps to keep us fit and healthy in a number of ways. 1-2% of our total body weight comes from calcium, and 99% of that is found in our bones, where it continuously rebuilds and maintains our skeleton.
While the vast majority of calcium lives in our bones, our bodies also work hard to maintain the correct amount in our blood. To do this, we take calcium from the food we eat or, if we don’t ingest enough, from our bones instead. Borrowing from our bones to maintain the balance in our blood is fine in the short-term, as it can be replaced, but it becomes damaging if the calcium deficit continues.
The calcium in our blood has a couple of really important functions: it helps our muscles (including our heart) and nerves function properly and helps our bodies maintain the correct pH level to ensure everything else functions the way it should too. Getting the right amount of calcium in our diet is, therefore, very important.
Maintaining our calcium balance
Calcium moves between the our blood and bones and is also lost in our toilet breaks! Since we use and lose calcium on a daily basis, understanding the factors that affect calcium absorption will help you keep healthy balanced levels in your blood and bones.
Taking a supplement isn’t always the answer. That’s because excess calcium can deposit itself where it doesn’t belong and cause kidney stones. Instead, we need to maximise our body’s ability to use the calcium we offer it and limit unnecessary loss. While there is definitely a genetic predisposition to the extent of our bone health, there are a few key points to consider.
- Limit your sodium (salt) intake. While both sodium and calcium are necessary for healthy nerve function, sodium competes with calcium so cutting back on salt can reduce your daily requirement of calcium significantly.
- Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, vitamin K, magnesium and potassium as they are all necessary for our bones to absorb calcium properly. Our main source of Vitamin D is the sun, so the NHS recommends a supplement for the winter months. The others are found in a huge range of fruits, nuts, grains and veggies.
- Eat enough but not too much protein and focus on plant-based rather than animal protein sources. The over-consumption of animal protein has been found to result in increased loss of calcium from our bones, which is then excreted in our urine.
- Limit your caffeine intake, don’t smoke and exercise regularly. Caffeine leads to loss of both water and calcium and smokers’ bones are more prone to fractures. Conversely, exercise has a positive effect on the ability of our bones to hang on to and use calcium efficiently.
Great foods for healthy bones
Being aware of calcium-rich foods, as well as foods that support our bodies in utilising calcium, is all part of building a holistically healthy body balance. Nutritional guidelines state that the average adult in the UK should have a daily calcium intake of around 700mg (this rises to 1200mg for people over 54) but, as stated above, the amount of calcium we lose, or are able to utilise, depends on a variety of factors. This figure takes this into account and errs on the side of caution, allowing for lifestyle factors that may lead to increased loss of calcium.
Best for bone health
- Leafy green vegetables are a great source of calcium and contain loads of vitamin K too: kale, collards, chinese cabbage, bok choy, turnip greens, mustard greens, cress (but not spinach, which has high calcium content but a low rate of absorption)
- Figs provide you with calcium, potassium and magnesium
- Sweet potatoes for potassium and magnesium
- Almond butter, a great alternative to peanut butter, is a good source of calcium and potassium.
- Plant milks are usually fortified with both calcium and vitamin D
- Blackstrap molasses, used in place of other sweeteners like sugar or honey, are an excellent course of calcium and magnesium
- Edamame beans and tofu are good plant-based protein sources and pack a calcium punch too
Other sources of calcium
- Other vegetables: broccoli, Brussel sprouts, butternut squash, green beans, peas, okra
- Legumes: beans (especially black turtle beans and white beans such as haricot beans or butter beans) chickpeas, lentils
- Dried fruits: prunes, apricots, dates, currants, raisins
- Nuts: almonds and hazelnuts
- Other fortified foods: orange juice, breakfast cereals, instant oats, bread
- Seaweed, especially wakame
In conclusion: top tips for healthy bones
So, whether or not you choose to include dairy in your diet, here are our top tips for healthy bones:
- Eat a variety of whole foods that are rich in calcium, vitamin K, potassium and magnesium.
- Ensure you are getting enough vitamin D either from sunlight or a supplement to help your body absorb calcium properly.
- Cut down on salt, animal proteins and caffeine to avoid leaching calcium from your bones and losing excess calcium in your urine.
- Don’t smoke.
- Exercise regularly to help your bones use calcium efficiently and hang on to the calcium you ingest.
by Munjeeta Sohal
MJ is a freelance writer, avid reader and habitual ruminator (and user of fancy words). She couldn’t live without books and her cats. On her days off, you can find her cycling up and down the Lea Valley, searching for a great vegan recipe to cook, or, well, reading her book with her cats.