Strong bones without dairy? It’s 100% possible.
Dairy might get all the attention when it comes to bone health, but that doesn’t mean you need to rely only on milk, cheese, and yogurt to prevent osteoporosis. In fact, the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) recommends a “well-balanced diet” rich in other foods, namely fish and fresh produce, for optimal bone health.
Cow’s milk may be high in calcium, but that’s not the only nutrient that healthy bones need. That’s good news for anyone with lactose intolerance—a condition that affects 75 percent of the global population and 25 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Being lactose intolerant means your body is unable to digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy, so a scoop of ice cream or glass of milk could result in painful bloating, cramps, and upset stomach.
Whether your tummy can tolerate dairy or not, the NOF recommends these non-dairy foods for a well-rounded and bone-boosting diet.
Leafy greens like spinach, kale, collard greens, beet greens, and chard. These versatile vegetables are high in calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K—all critical nutrients for bone health. Along with calcium and vitamin D, magnesium is considered one of the three most important nutrients for bone health by American Bone Health (ABH). A 2012 review in The Open Orthopaedics Journal found that an additional 250 milligrams of magnesium a day improved bone mineral density in women with osteoporosis. (Here’s how to make a kale salad you’ll actually crave.)
Sweet potatoes. The orange-hued spud is a great source of both magnesium and potassium. While bananas tend to get all the potassium attention, one sweet potato actually has nearly double the potassium as a ‘nana. Potassium helps the body by neutralizing the harmful effects of sodium; a high-salt diet can leach calcium from the bones. Lowering your sodium intake and upping your potassium may improve bone health. Here are more great food sources of potassium.
Bell peppers. These colorful vegetables are an excellent source of vitamin C, which can help bone health by aiding in collagen formation, according to ABH. Collagen is a complex protein found in the body, especially the bones. It helps stimulate mineralization of the bone, which makes them stronger and more dense.
Tomatoes. This fruit-that-seems-like-a-veg is also a great source of vitamin C, but it’s also high in bone’s other best friends, magnesium and potassium. (Try making this DIY tomato sauce for your next pasta night.)
Brussels sprouts. These little baby cabbages are another source of vitamin C, but they also offer up bone-boosting vitamin K. According to ABH, vitamin K helps attract calcium to the bones, which can improve bone density and reduce fracture risk.
Raisins. On their own or in trail mix, raisins are a great source of magnesium and potassium. As with all dried fruit, be careful with portion size as raisins are easy to gobble quickly and are high in sugar. If you’re counting carbs for diabetes, try these other great food sources of magnesium.
Fortified plant milks like soy, rice, or almond milk. Often, these plant-based milks have as much as—or more—calcium and vitamin D as cow’s milk. Yes, these nutrients are added in during production, but note that vitamin D is added to cow’s milk as well.
Fatty fish like salmon, tuna, or sardines. These fish are a great source of calcium and vitamin D (yep, the same nutrients found in dairy). Just a single 3-ounce serving of salmon contains 570 IU of vitamin D, getting you close to the daily recommended amount of 600 IU a day.
As for getting more calcium, milk ain’t the only option. Here are other top food sources of calcium, in and out of the dairy aisle.
Fish, salmon, sockeye, cooked, dry heat. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Accessed on March 7, 2018 at https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/4568.)
Food and your bones—osteoporosis nutrition guidelines. Arlington, VA: National Osteoporosis Foundation. (Accessed on March 7, 2018 at https://www.nof.org/patients/treatment/nutrition/.)
Nutrients for bone health. Oakland, CA: American Bone Health. (Accessed on March 7, 2018 at https://americanbonehealth.org/nutrition/nutrientsforbonehealth/.)
Price CT, Langford JR, Liporace FA. Essential nutrients for bone health and a review of their availability in the average North American diet. Open Orthop J. 2012;6:143-9.
Tomoaia G, Pasca RD. On the collagen mineralization. A review. Clujul Med. 2015;88(1):15-22.
Vitamins for bone health. Oakland, CA: American Bone Health. (Accessed on March 7, 2018 at https://americanbonehealth.org/nutrition/vitamins-for-bone-health/.)
What is lactose intolerance? Washington, DC: Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (Accessed on March 7, 2018 at http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/what-is-lactose-intolerance.)