When it comes to bone health, calcium is the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind. And why not? After all 99% of calcium in the human body is stored in bones and teeth! A sizable number of people today suffer from calcium deficiency related issues. And, despite the fact that over two dozen plant based foods that have more calcium than cow’s milk, the only solution they are generally offered, unfortunately, is a glass of milk and calcium supplements. Pregnant women, lactating mothers, growing teens, those suffering from bone related diseases, middle aged people, those in their early thirties and even one year old babies are on calcium supplements these days! So, quite clearly, a glass of milk in the morning is doing no good to anyone!
There exists a lot of misinformation and misconceptions when it comes to calcium and having healthy bones! Here is an attempt to demystify the maze through some basic facts:
1. Dairy isn’t always the answer!
“Animal protein tends to leach calcium from the bones, leading to its excretion in the urine. Animal proteins are high in sulfur-containing amino acids, especially cystine and methionine. Sulfur is converted to sulfate, which tends to acidify the blood. During the process of neutralizing this acid, bone dissolves into the bloodstream and filters through the kidneys into the urine. Meats and eggs contain two to five times more of these sulfur-containing amino acids than are found in plant foods,” explains Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).
Moreover, most plant based sources have much higher calcium absorption than dairy, and do not have harmful side-effects. Plus, as stated earlier there are plenty of calcium rich plant based foods such as all legumes, peas, lentils, leafy greens, tofu, Ragi, seeds like sesame or flax, etc. At least two dozen of them contain more calcium than Dairy as shown in the chart below.
Besides, how do some of the largest and strongest animals like elephants, horses and rhinos build their strong bones? Through a 100% vegan diet, primarily consisting of leafy greens!
2. Calcium ‘intake’ is not the primary concern today
Ever pondered why, even after being on supplements for long periods, osteoporosis patients never get cured? The reason is that very few of us pay attention to the issue of calcium loss. Calcium is present in more or less quantity in every food that we take. So instead of calcium intake, we should be worried about the diet and lifestyle changes that can minimize its loss and maximize its absorption. Here are some of the factors that cause calcium loss (through urine):
- All animal foods (milk, meat, eggs, etc.)
- Excessive consumption of salt, especially packaged foods with high sodium content
- Refined carbohydrates such as white sugar, white flour, etc.
- Carbonated drinks
- Drugs such as antibiotics, steroids, thyroid hormone
- Vitamin A supplements
- Aluminum containing antacids
(Sources: “Eat to live” by Dr. Joel Furhman, “Eat right, live longer” by Dr. Neal Bernard)
3. Vitamin D deficiency
Vitamin D plays an important role in calcium absorption and reducing urinary calcium losses via kidneys. Most people today find themselves deficient in this vitamin because of lack of proper exposure to sunlight. Many times, addressing the vitamin D deficiency solves problems like joint pain. Unfortunately, no amount of fortification of foods can provide an adequate quantity of vitamin D, hence people need to depend on either sunlight or supplements.
4. Role of Vitamin K
Dr. Walter Willett in Eat, Drink and Be Healthy writes, “Until recently, vitamin K was thought to be necessary mostly for the formation of proteins that regulate blood clotting. It turns out, though, that this fat-soluble vitamin also plays one or more roles in the regulation of calcium and the formation and stabilization of bone. So too little vitamin K may help set the stage for osteoporosis. In the Nurses’ Health Study, women who got more than 109 micrograms of vitamin K a day were 30 percent less likely to break a hip than women who got less than that amount.” Vitamin K can easily be obtained from all the dark leafy green vegetables, spring onions, dried herbs, many spices, carrots, etc.
5. Work your bones!
Today’s sedentary lifestyle is also one of the reasons for poor calcium absorption in the bones. The calcium that you get through food needs to be distributed to the bones properly, and this happens only with physical activities such as household work, exercises, weight lifting, swimming, walking, cycling, etc.
Here are a few ways to boost calcium in your bones through healthy foods:
- As discussed earlier, calcium loss is a primary concern than its intake. So eat healthy and avoid foods that deplete the calcium stores of your body. Ensure some type of physical workout activity once in a day.
- Green smoothies (blend 2 bananas with 1 cup of mixed greens of your choice)
- Nutritious calcium-rich laddoos: Blend nuts and seeds (sesame, flax, sabja, fennal, watermelon, pumpkin, sunflower, etc.) of your choice with soft dates, cardamom and coconut powder. You could also add cocoa powder or puffed amaranth/jowar/ragi to it.
- Try a variety of dishes made from Ragi, such as idly, dosas, porridge or even rotis.
- Add a variety of leafy greens to your foods. They can even be added to your dal, roti or curry.
- Try more beans and legumes like Rajma, Chana, peas and lentils like Urad, etc.
- A lot of seeds like sesame, flax, sabja etc. are rich in calcium. Try some of these ways to include seeds in your dishes.
- Add sesame seeds powder to your curry or salads.
- Many lentils are high in calcium. So use variety of them to make your dal.
- You can make all the conventional paneer dishes with Tofu. It’s healthy and cholesterol free too!