One of the most common concerns I hear for not giving up dairy is that by doing so, you will put the health of your bones at risk, primarily due to insufficient dietary calcium. With that in mind, I thought I'd offer up a few suggestions for keeping those bones healthy sans dairy. Take note, though: I'm not saying dairy is bad or that it can't be used as part of a healthy diet (although individual results may vary), I'm simply laying out a case against the argument that you can't get adequate calcium unless you're eating dairy.
1. Eat your greens!
A large part of our bones are composed of calcium, making it an essential mineral for maintaining healthy bones. But there's much more to bone health than just calcium. According to Michael Murray, ND, there are over 24 bone-building vitamins and minerals that work together to protect us from osteoporosis. For example, vitamin K is needed for osteocalcin (a protein found in the bone matrix) to mineralized bone. Magnesium increases calcium uptake and vitamin D helps it to get deposited into our bones. So, while milk is high in calcium it is incredibly low in magnesium and the other co-factors that allow us to utilize the calcium we consume. Green leafy vegetables on the other hand, are full of these vital nutrients ensuring that we get the calcium from our food. In fact, one study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Heaney RP, Weaver CM.1990; 51:656-657) compared the absorption of calcium from kale with the absorption from milk and found that calcium absorption from kale was 40.9%, compared to only 32.1% from milk. What's more, just 1 cup of cooked collard greens provides you with more calcium than a cup of cow or goat milk!
The following foods are essential for maintaining strong bones:
Soft shell crab
Sardines and anchovies (small fish with edible bones)
2. Get Your Daily Dose of Sunshine
Vitamin D is essential for keeping your bones strong. It works to absorb calcium from your digestive tract and escorts it right where it needs to go: your bones. According to health integrationist Layna Burman, if you're fair-skinned, you need 15-minutes of sun exposure (sans suncreen) between 12pm-2pm every day in order to get your daily requirements. If you're darker-skinned, you'll need closer to 30-minutes of sunlight daily. Most of us don't get enough sun exposure especially during the winter, leaving us with weak vitamin D levels. Concerned about skin damage? Supplement with 2,000-4,000 units of D3. You could also get your vitamin D levels tested with a 25-hydroxy vitamin D test.
3. Do CrossFit
Bone is living tissue that responds really well to exercise. Just like your muscles become stronger and bigger with regular use, your bones will also become stronger and more dense with exercise. According to the Osteoporosis Foundation, the most effective type of exercise for building and maintaining good bone density is weight-bearing exercises and resistance training. Muscle and bone go hand-in-hand; the more muscle you have on your body, the stronger your bones are!
When you're experiencing stress, whether it is good or bad, your adrenals secrete cortisol, your primary stress hormone, to help remedy the situation. While cortisol is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent it can also be catabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle and bone, when it's elevated around the clock. For example, exercise is a good form of stress that elicits the release of cortisol but when you're over-trained and don't give your body time to recover, you wind up doing more harm than good. Chronically high cortisol can also make your blood more acidic, forcing your bones to release calcium, an alkalizing mineral, to buffer the acidity. While I'm on the topic of acid/alkaline balance, I should also mention that certain foods also contribute to an acidic environment. Sodas and carbonated drinks have phosphoric acid which binds to calcium in your digestive tract and stops it from being absorbed. Excess amounts of coffee, alcohol, and sugar can also be acid-forming causing your body to leach out calcium from your bones. High cortisol levels coupled with a highly acidic diet can set you up for some serious bone loss. Be kind to your body by giving it plenty of downtime and feeding it alkalizing foods like fruits and vegetables.
Calcium supplements are best absorbed when they are chelated (bound) to amino acids. It is also necessary to have adequate stomach acid to digest and absorb calcium. If the stomach produces too little stomach acid (hydrochloric acid), calcium remains insoluble and cannot be metabolized. That being said, the recommended daily dose of calcium is highly individual and depends on factors like age, gender, activity level, etc.