Achieving Bone Health and Density Through a Plant-Based Diet

There is much research that a plant-based diet is good for health as it lessens your chances of suffering from specific health issues including diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and certain cancers. Excessive consumption of meat and animal products tend to increase the risk for these health issues. 

However, many argue that a plant-based diet is not very beneficial for bone health and density as they assume that this type of diet lacks sufficient calcium and other nutrients necessary  to achieve bone health.

Fortunately, these statements are false, and all the evidence points to the fact that plant-based foods are actually healthier for bone health and the nutrients these plants provide are in a much more available form for the body to utilize. [1]

So how can we support bone health on a plant-based diet?

Protein

Protein is a necessary ingredient of bones; about half of healthy bones are made of protein. Collagen is the chief structural protein in bones that provides the flexible framework of the bones. Therefore, the consumption of foods that are rich in protein is essential for achieving better bone health and density. What’s more, protein intake directly links to calcium absorption which is another integral part of healthy bones. The mineral calcium phosphate adds strength and hardens the bones.  The mix of calcium and collagen is what makes bones strong yet flexible enough to withstand daily stressors. [2]

It is crucial to consume about the right amount of protein you need, per your gender, age, and weight, as very high protein intake can lead to health issues, almost as much as low protein intake can. Therefore, just the right amount of protein, not too much and not too little, will help maintain bone density and health. Excess intake of protein from animal products causes calcium to be excreted from the body. And low protein intake is detrimental both for the acquisition of bone mass during childhood and maintenance of bone mineral density in adulthood, leading to more significant fracture rate in the elderly. [3]

When consuming the right amount of protein,  your body will absorb more calcium from your diet.  Check out my article here to learn how much protein is healthy for your daily consumption. 

Calcium

It’s long known that calcium is vital for your bones, but it isn’t often pointed out that apart from dairy products, many other foods are also rich in calcium, and, in fact, our bodies absorb the calcium from these foods much more readily, preventing the problems associated with unabsorbed calcium being deposited in different places throughout the body other than bone tissue.

There are many plant-based foods are rich in calcium, and these should be consumed regularly throughout the day as calcium is not always readily absorbed by your body. Calcium supplements are not recommended as they have been linked to a slight increase in the risk of heart disease. [4]

Plants rich in calcium include:

  • Most seeds, especially chia seeds, sesame seeds, celery seeds, and poppy seeds.
  • Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale
  • Rhubarb
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Almonds
  • Figs
  • Amaranth
  • Edamame and other soy based foods like tofu, but ensure you are choosing non-GM soy sources.

Vegetables

Overall, vegetables are the best foods to consume in order to achieve better bone health. 

Vegetables are a rich source of Vitamin C which is responsible for the stimulation and production of bone-forming cells. It is also responsible for protecting these cells from free radical damage. [5]

When it comes to bone density, vegetable consumption is very beneficial. Green and yellow vegetables appear to link to improved bone density and bone mass maintenance with children and younger adults. Older people benefit as well since the high consumption of vegetables has been shown to decrease the risk of osteoporosis by protecting bone mass. [6, 7]

Vitamins

When it comes to healthy bones, two vitamins are deemed crucial: Vitamin D and Vitamin K.

Vitamin D has many roles in the body, among which also involves bone health.

Calcium that provides bones with their strength needs to come in the presence of an adequate supply of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus from foods. Vitamin D is essential to the absorption of calcium into bone tissue. To get sufficient vitamin D make sure you are getting adequate exposure to UVB sun rays during the summer months and that you are getting enough vitamin D in the form of a supplement during the winter months where in most places there are insufficient UVB rays during this season. [8, 9]

Vitamin K2 is also important as it helps bind minerals to bones and prevents loss of calcium from bones. This vitamin can be taken either from the regular consumption of sauerkraut and natto, a fermented soy product or from supplements. 

Minerals and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Magnesium has a crucial role in many bodily functions including the conversion of Vitamin D into the form that the body can use making it vital for bone health and density. 

Magnesium rich foods are usually very high in a plant-based diet and include avocados, nuts, legumes, seeds, whole grains, bananas, and leafy greens.

Zinc is needed in small amounts for bone health and is found in minute quantities in our bones, but it is still essential for bone health. Foods rich in zinc include flaxseeds, spinach, and pumpkin seeds. These foods should be consumed regularly throughout the week.

Omega-3 fats have been shown to protect our bones from bone density loss [10] Omega 3 fatty acids are essential to health and must be taken regularly from the diet. You can get these essential fats from flaxseeds, walnuts, and chia seeds.

Conclusion:

It is easy to maintain bone health on a plant-based diet. Plant-based foods are rich in all of the protein, vitamins, and minerals necessary to support bone health and density. We can see that the most massive animals with a heavy weight load on their bones are mainly plant-eating herbivores. Plant-based diets also lead to fewer mineral losses due to lowered acidity, as well as fewer mineral deposits elsewhere in the body other than in bone tissue, leading to health issues. When you ensure sufficient calcium, zinc, and magnesium-rich foods and you also maintain adequate vitamin D levels to support your bones, either from sunlight or supplementation when insufficient skin exposure is possible, then you will be supporting bone density also when you age reducing the risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures.

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References:

  • [1] Dietary approaches for bone health: lessons from the Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Shivani Sahni, PhD, Assistant Scientist II, Kelsey M Mangano, PhD RD, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Robert R McLean, DSc MPH, Assistant Scientist II, Marian T Hannan, DSc MPH, Senior Scientist, and Douglas P Kiel, MD MPH, Senior Scientist. Curr Osteoporos Rep. 2015 Aug; 13(4): 245–255. doi: 10.1007/s11914-015-0272-1
  • [2] Low protein intake: the impact on calcium and bone homeostasis in humans. Kerstetter JE, O’Brien KO, Insogna KL. J Nutr. 2003 Mar;133(3):855S-861S.
  • [3] Bonjour JP. Protein intake and bone health. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2011 Mar;81(2-3):134-42. doi: 10.1024/0300-9831/a000063.
  • [4] Calcium Intake From Diet and Supplements and the Risk of Coronary Artery Calcification and its Progression Among Older Adults: 10-Year Follow-up of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Anderson JJ, Kruszka B, Delaney JA, He K, Burke GL, Alonso A, Bild DE, Budoff M, Michos ED. J Am Heart Assoc. 2016 Oct 11;5(10). pii: e003815.
  • [5] The Roles and Mechanisms of Actions of Vitamin C in Bone: New Developments. Aghajanian P, Hall S, Wongworawat MD, Mohan S. J Bone Miner Res. 2015 Nov;30(11):1945-55. doi: 10.1002/jbmr.2709. Epub 2015 Oct 7.
  • [6] Dietary patterns associated with fat and bone mass in young children. Wosje KS, Khoury PR, Claytor RP, Copeland KA, Hornung RW, Daniels SR, Kalkwarf HJ. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Aug;92(2):294-303. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28925. Epub 2010 Jun 2.
  • [7] The association between onion consumption and bone density in perimenopausal and postmenopausal non-Hispanic white women 50 years and older. Matheson EM, Mainous AG 3rd, Carnemolla MA.
  • [8] Vitamin D deficiency: a worldwide problem with health consequences. Holick MF, Chen TC. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Apr;87(4):1080S-6S.
  • [9] Bikle DD. Vitamin D and bone. Curr Osteoporos Rep. 2012;10(2):151-9.
  • [10] The role for dietary omega-3 fatty acids supplementation in older adults. Molfino A, Gioia G, Rossi Fanelli F, Muscaritoli M. Nutrients. 2014 Oct 3;6(10):4058-73. doi: 10.3390/nu6104058