Can you really have healthy bones without milk?

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When working with patients, especially women, and I suggest they remove dairy from their diet, the first question they always ask is, “then how will I get my calcium”.  Despite the milk ads in the subway or on TV there are numerous ways to get calcium into your diet that don’t involve drinking milk.  In fact, because the lactose in milk is not easily digested by many people, vegetable sources for calcium may actually be a more readily available source of calcium.  Let me explain.

Absorption

Let’s start by understanding our digestive process and the effect food allergens have on it.  When we are eating food, we chew our food and swallow it so it can go down to our stomach.  Our stomach acid breaks down the food and then it passes to our small intestine.  This is the place where absorption happens.  Our small intestines have finger-like structures, called villi, which help us absorb nutrients, such as calcium, from the food which we just ate.  The villi are delicate structures which can easily become damaged, meaning we will have a harder time absorbing our nutrients.
villi

When we eat a food allergen such as dairy, the allergen irritates the lining in our small intestine causing inflammation.  This irritation and inflammation will cause damage to the villi, affecting our ability to absorb nutrients.  The good news is that our body can repair the villi by avoiding allergenic food, improving digestion and nutritional support.

Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium

So, as you can see, if you have an allergy or even sensitivity to dairy, you may not be absorbing the nutrient benefit from it.  Eating a food that is impairing your ability to absorb the nutritional value is not going to help keep your bones strong.  What many people do not realize is that non-dairy options for calcium are easier for the body to absorb.  Not to mention, they also contain other important nutrients for bone health that are not as commonly talked about.  What we need to understand is that bones are not formed by calcium alone.  There is such a focus on getting calcium in our diets that we don’t realize in order to absorb that calcium we need other important nutrients too.

Non-dairy sources of calcium, such as vegetables and legumes, are not only a great source of calcium but also the other nutrients that are needed for bone health, such as vitamin K and manganese.   Vitamin C is also important for bone health and is required as a co-factor in collagen.  Collagen is a protein which provides a soft framework, and works with calcium to add strength and harden the framework of our bones.  Vegetables, and in particular dark green leafy vegetables, are a great source of vitamin K and vitamin C.    While vitamin D is also essential to help with the absorption of calcium, and is needed for healthy bones, it is difficult to get enough from diet alone.  This is one nutrient for bone health that you may want to consider supplementing with – but talk to your healthcare provider first.  Bottom line, when you eat vegetables you’ll get more than just calcium – you’ll get some of the other nutrients that are required for bone health too.

It is recommended for both men and women to get at least 1,300mg of calcium per day.  Below are some non-dairy of options to help you achieve that.

Food Source Milligrams per serving
Black turtle beans (1 cup, boiled) 103
Broccoli (1 cup, boiled) 178
Tofu (1/2 cup) 258
White beans (1 cup, boiled) 161
Figs, dried (10 medium) 269
Soybeans (1 cup, boiled) 175
Collard (1 cup, boiled) 148
Kale (1 cup, boiled) 94
Navy beans (1 cup, boiled) 158
Almonds (30 grams) 75

 

About the author: Michelle Heighington is a registered nutritionist helping clients take a holistic approach to maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle.  She practices out of Back in Balance Clinic in Toronto, and has counselled clients with a wide variety of medical conditions, including HIV/AIDS, endometriosis, women’s health, diabetes, food allergies and digestive tract disorders.