All too often we’re blind-sided by the media, led to believe that one food, one product, one vitamin or mineral is the answer to our very health and existence. If you’re following a dairy-free diet, no doubt you’ve heard the question “How do you get enough calcium?” countless times, as if this lone mineral is a magical bone-building pill. In reality, our bodies are quite complex, requiring a healthy lifestyle and a combination of various nutrients to operate optimally. Sure, we do need some calcium (how much is still in debate), but it isn’t as simple as “eat calcium, deposit on bones”. In fact, calcium is pretty useless on its own. It requires other vitamins, minerals, physical reactions and even healthy hormones to promote bone health.
Whether you follow a dairy-free diet or not, it’s time to start thinking outside of the milk carton, to those dietary building blocks that dairy can’t provide. And since bone health is a priority for people of all ages, starting with the habits of young children, these bites of knowledge offer something for all of us to chew on:
Sip on the Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption, whether you are still growing or in maintenance mode. Yet aside from a small handful of foods, like mushrooms, this essential hormone-hero can be difficult to obtain via our diets, and short winter days coupled with working indoors can prevent us from soaking up enough sun to meet Vitamin D needs. Luckily, supplements are available and there are many Vitamin D fortified options, like dairy-free coconut milk beverage and coconut yogurt.
Think dairy is a better source? Did you know that the Vitamin D in dairy milk sold at the grocers is actually fortified, just like dairy-free milks? Any naturally occurring vitamin D is destroyed during the processing of dairy, and it has become customary (though not required) for milk processors to fortify the finished product. So enjoy the better taste of your favorite dairy-free milks!
Find Your Mineral Balance
Like calcium, you can’t expect vitamin D to work perfectly on its own. It also needs a little assistance from things like magnesium. We used to be told that magnesium is in such abundance that we need not worry about deficiencies. But poor soil, poor diets, processing of food, and even cooking has dramatically reduced magnesium levels in our food supply and our bodies. According to Dr. Carolyn Dean, an expert on magnesium, we used to average 500 mg of magnesium daily, but that has fallen to 200 mg on average. To keep our supplies adequate for bone health, she recommends shooting for a 1:1 ratio of dietary calcium to magnesium. Did you know that dairy milk contains a ratio of 10:1 calcium to magnesium?! Dairy-free milks like coconut milk beverage provide 2:1 ratios to easily balance with other magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains and leafy greens.
How to Enjoy:
- Up your intake of whole grains, nuts and seeds with any of these 10 Healthy Breakfast Cereal Recipes (includes granola, hot and cold cereals)
- Add leafy greens, like kale, to healthy beverages, like this Lemon Lime Green Smoothie.
- Get some protein via legumes. We like this Smokey Black Bean Bisque.
A Juicy Finding
It would be interesting to see superstars trade in their milk mustaches for pitchers of freshly squeezed orange juice, wouldn’t it? This could be a future reality, as several studies out of Texas A&M University have cited citrus as a potential key to osteoporosis prevention. Their results showed a marked improvement in bone density with the consumption of grapefruit and orange juice, and other research has concurred that citrus seems to improve calcium absorption.
How to Enjoy:
- These Orange-Oat Muffins (vegan and gluten-free) contain the fresh fruit, peel and all, along with other calcium and magnesium-strong ingredients.
- Make a parfait of peeled orange & grapefruit sections with coconut milk yogurt.
- Try a Creamy Orange Smoothie, filled with fresh oranges, orange juice and other balanced foods.
Grandma Knows Best
In studies led by Profesor Bahram H. Arjmandi, chairman of the Department of Nutrition, Food and Exercise Sciences at Florida State University, dried plums (aka prunes) have shown an “exceptional” ability to improve bone mineral density. While these studies have focused on the primary risk group for osteoporosis, post-menopausal women, it seems the opposite sex need not feel left out of the prune frenzy. The researchers believe prunes (about 10 to 12 daily) may also help prevent skeletal deterioration in men and younger generations.
How to Enjoy:
- I love prune shakes! Blend 1/4 cup pitted prunes (about 5 medium prunes), 1 frozen (ripe) banana, and 1 cup chocolate coconut milk beverage.
- Dice the prunes and serve atop a bowl of granola doused with vanilla cashew milk.
- On snowy days or cool nights, enjoy a mug of this Nourishing Hot Chocolate.
Swap Your Sip
Though you don’t need to cut out alcohol and caffeine entirely, too much of either has been shown in studies to accelerate bone loss. Excess caffeine can interfere with calcium absorption while both vices can prevent Vitamin D from adequately doing its job.
How to get your fix without overdoing it?
- Balance your black beverage with some tasty, nutritious add-ins, like in this Pumpkin Latte Shake.
- Pick chocolate for dessert or even breakfast with this health Eat Dirt Shake. Chocolate has a fraction of the caffeine, but all of the satisfaction and a good dose of magnesium!
- Try some tea, straight-up or this creamy homemade Chai Tea. Research has found that this lower caffeine comforter may have some bone health secrets of its own!
Why Calcium is Controversial
Calcium is very important, after all, when combined with phosphorous it composes approximately 80% to 90% of the mineral content of our bones. Yet, the real challenge comes not so much in getting enough calcium, but actually keeping that calcium in our bones. Fluoride, iron, zinc, copper, sodium, vitamin K, potassium, antioxidant vitamins (such as C & E), and those mentioned below each play a vital role in calcium absorption and retention. And experts worldwide believe that the U.S. is putting far too much emphasis on calcium, and may even be consuming too much. The RDA for calcium for U.S. adults is 1000 to 1200 mg, with many doctors often recommending a higher intake. But in the U.K., the RDA is just 700 mg, and the World Health Organization recommends only 400 to 500 mg of calcium daily.
But is our excess calcium really a concern? Large studies have shown that dairy consumption may actually cause osteoporosis, and the countries with the highest consumption of dairy (including the U.S.) tend to have the highest rates of bone fracture while those with the lowest dairy consumption tend to have the lowest rates of bone fracture. Why? Perhaps it is an excess, or maybe it’s actually an imbalance (see the section on Magnesium above).
If you are still concerned about calcium on the dairy-free diet, consider fortified products with a balance of calcium and other nutrients, like coconut milk beverage and yogurt, and see my milk-free calcium chart for great whole foods to incorporate.
More Dairy-Free Bone Health Recipes
For delicious vegan recipes (mostly gluten-free, too) that offer a balance of bone health goodness, from naturally occurring calcium to super-power citrus to essential supporters like magnesium, potassium, protein, and iron, enjoy these:
- Vanilla Chia Pudding Parfaits
- Green Tea Scones
- Forest Berry & Yogurt Parfaits
- Quinoa Chocolate Chip Brownies
- Baby Kale and Warm Couscous Salad
- Cashew Chai Latte Oatmeal
- Creamy Almond Protein Shake
- Coconut Quinoa Gnocchi with Garlic Cream Kale
- Cardamom Pudding Green Smoothie
- Roasted Garlic Avocado Soup with Homemade Yogurt Herb Crackers
- Garlicky Grilled Caesar Salad with Cannellini Croutons
- Rainbow Kale Slaw with Clementines
This post is sponsored by So Delicious Dairy Free. That said, the information provided is unbiased and based on research. Also, my family does enjoy So Delicious vegan coconut and cashew products specifically for bone health – and taste, of course!