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Posted on February 23, 2018
Calcium and vitamin D play vital roles in bone health, but can you get enough of these nutrients every day without dairy? Absolutely! If most of your happy plate is filled with whole-plant foods — including plenty of fruits, greens, beans and other colorful vegetables — you don’t need to do any fancy math to make sure you eat your recommended intake of calcium. It helps to get outdoors too, but we’ll get to that a moment.
But first, calcium. This mineral is necessary for building and maintaining strong teeth and bones and a lot more. It also helps our blood clot, nerves send messages and muscles contract. Luckily for those that enjoy 5-10 servings of fruits and veggies a day, some of the most easily absorbed calcium from food is plant-based.
Low oxalate greens such as broccoli, kale, bok choy, turnip greens and mustard greens have the highest absorption rates. Forty to as much as 60 percent of the calcium in these foods are used by our bodies. Calcium set tofu is next with a 30 percent absorption rate (similar to dairy-based products). Most legumes, fortified dairy alternatives and sweet potatoes fair well at 20+ percent. The lowest ranking calcium-rich foods are figs, rhubarb and high oxalate greens such as spinach, swiss chard and beet greens with a five percent absorption rate.
Vegetables can be an important source of calcium and may also provide vitamins and minerals that exert additional beneficial effects on the bone. It’s helpful to also keep in mind that bone health is strongly influenced by whether you exercise. Don’t drive yourself crazy counting your intake. Just remember to eat plenty of whole plant-based foods, and keep in mind that adult bone density and bone mineral content can be strongly influenced by exercise, particularly in adolescence. So, go on — get outside and use those bones!
Vitamin D plays a big role in helping calcium build strong bones, but that’s not all it does. Vitamin D also helps regulate the immune system, helps regulate the neuromuscular system and plays major roles in the life cycle of human cells. Deficiencies are not a vegan or plant-based diet issue. As of 2006, 41.6 percent of American’s have a vitamin D deficiency, and that number increases depending on ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Vitamin D is sometimes affectionately referred to as the “sunshine vitamin.” This is because your body makes vitamin D3 from short wave ultraviolet rays (UVB) from the sun. Important note: dermatologists don’t suggest exposing your skin to the sun without the appropriate protection! There are foods fortified with vitamin D and foods that create their own such as mushrooms that make vitamin D2 from being exposed to sunlight. Foods alone may not be enough to give your body optimal levels as it needs. Your doctor can help you assess your current vitamin D levels and make recommendations based on your current health, which may include a supplement such as a D3 made from lichen.
Whole plant foods—greens, colorful veggies, beans and fruits—and moderate sunshine are two ways to get enough calcium and vitamin D without dairy. Exercise also plays an important role in bone density and mineral content. Supplements are another great way to get vitamin D without milk.
When you’re eating for bone health, there are important results for your overall health too. Your brain, heart, kidneys and just about every organ in your body make use of the nutrients in beans, greens and veggies. A plant-based happy plate and moderate sunshine pair perfectly to help you get enough calcium and vitamin D. Picnic anyone? Today’s the first day of spring! Head outside with family and friends, and bask in the start of a new growing season.
August 8, 2017