Note: This article presents research-based information. Consult your physician or health provider for professional medical advice.
Unlike the familiar fossil-like images of a skeleton with bleached limbs, the bones in our body are a living latticework of self-regenerating tissue that provides a framework for our bodies while also protecting our delicate internal organs. A complex architecture of mineral crystals and collagen protein allow bones to be strong and flexible. Our bones and teeth also store calcium and other essential minerals. Calcium is essential for maintaining proper nerve and muscle function and for keeping cell membranes healthy. Our bones release calcium into the bloodstream when calcium levels in the blood are low, so it is important to ensure adequate calcium intake to maintain healthy bones.
When it comes to building strong, healthy bones, many of us envision a cup of milk, a creamy slice of cheese, or even some yogurt. For decades, milk and milk-based dairy products have been promoted as rich source of calcium for the American diet.
Yet a growing number of Americans are finding themselves lactose intolerant. This means their bodies no longer produce lactase, a digestive enzyme that metabolizes the lactose sugar found in milk-based products.
“Lactose intolerance tends to occur in a higher percentage of people from non-European backgrounds, such as Alaska Natives, American Indians, Asians, African-Americans, Africans, Latin Americans, and Ashkenazi Jews,” explained Kari Natwick, the community dietitian at the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. “When an individual is unable to consume milk or milk products, it is still necessary to consume adequate amounts of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D in their diets through other sources.”
Fortunately, for lactose-intolerant individuals and others who are seeking to reduce their dairy consumption, there are many non-dairy sources of calcium. The food traditions of many cultures around the world include adequate amounts of calcium and other nutrients essential to bone health that are based on foods that are produced locally without necessarily depending on milk and dairy.
Check out these simple strategies for bone health that go beyond milk and calcium supplements:
• Be active. Natwick emphasizes going beyond nutrition for better bone health. “It is important to engage in physical activity, especially weight-bearing exercises such as walking.” By encouraging the muscles and bones to work against gravity, physical activity strengthens bones by stimulating bone cells. Being active also improves blood circulation throughout the body and transports essential nutrients and minerals to feed the live bone tissue.
• Love local foods. Traditional Southeast Alaska foods harvested from the sea such as seaweed and shellfish add calcium and other bone-building nutrients to our diet. Natwick points out, “Canned fish with bones are an excellent source of calcium. This could include fish that is processed at home or commercially. Examples include canned salmon, mackerel, and sardines.”
• Grab your greens. Dark leafy greens such as kale and collard greens are the best sources of calcium. Broccoli is another calcium-rich vegetable. Interestingly, Swiss chard and spinach contain higher calcium levels than kale and collards, but high levels of chemical compounds called oxalates interfere with absorption of calcium. Nevertheless, these nutrient-dense greens are a good deal because they contain plenty of other vitamins and minerals essential for good general health, which then supports strong bones. For gardeners in Southeast Alaska, now is a good time to start planning to grow a healthy harvest of dark leafy vegetables this summer!
• Discover calcium-rich surprises. Many unassuming foods are surprising sources of calcium. Soybeans, soy milk, and tofu are good sources of calcium and protein as well as beans, lentils, and Brazil nuts and almonds. Black-strap molasses, figs, and sesame seeds all add flavor and calcium to your diet. Stews, curries, soups, and broths made from slow-cooked animal bones can add calcium and other minerals into your food, so buying meat with the bone one can be a double bargain.
• Take or make your Vitamin D. This vitamin and hormone is essential for proper calcium absorption. Our skin naturally produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, so spending time outdoors in the sun is good for your bones as well as your mood. With limited sunlight in Southeast Alaska, food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, fish, eggs, and liver. Check with your medical provider to test your vitamin D levels.
• Limit caffeine, salt, sugar, and alcohol. Consume these in moderation. Excessive consumption of caffeine, salt, sugar, and alcohol causes in increased loss of calcium through urination. Excessive alcohol use can interfere with the balance of calcium in the blood and also disrupt the conversion of vitamin D into its active form. Alcohol can also negatively affect the hormones which regulate the osteoblast cells that make new bones.
Strengthening our bones is as simple as choosing a delicious variety of calcium–rich foods and taking advantage of longer days to make time for physical activity outdoors and indoors. At last, spring has sprung and the time for bone-building has begun!
• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer in Juneau. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org