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Plant Based Food For Strong Bones

You don’t eat meat, or maybe animal products are not a large part of your diet. But bone health is a real concern for you. How can you get plant based food for strong bones?

In this article you will learn about the nutrients that you need to keep your bones strong. You will find out how you can get them even if you are a vegan or vegetarian.

Let’s get started on a better diet for your bones.

What do I mean by plant based food?

You will find a few different definitions out there for plant based diets. Some people consider it to be a diet made up only of plants, such as a vegetarian or vegan diet. Others say it is a diet made up mostly of plants, but can contain some animal products. 

I consider a plant based diet to be made up mostly of plants. If you only eat small amounts of meat to supplement many vegetables, that is plant based. If you are a lacto-ovo vegetarian who eats some cheese, yogurt or eggs, you are still plant based. 

However, this article will focus entirely on how to get the nutrients you need from plants, not from meat, milk, fish or eggs.

Plant Based Minerals For Strong Bones

There are twelve minerals that are important for strong bones. Some of these are actually part of the bone structure, and some make up the enzymes that keep your bones healthy. Let’s run through them all.

Calcium

Nearly half of your bone tissue is made of calcium, and most of the calcium in your body is in your bones. So it’s no surprise that everyone knows they need calcium to keep their bones strong.

It is easy enough to get calcium from milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products, but let’s talk plants. There is plenty of calcium available in the plant world.

Here are a list of some plant based foods that provide approximately 100 mg (or more) of calcium:

  • ½ cup cooked collard greens
  • 2 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed butter)
  • ½ cup cooked turnip greens
  • 1 cup cooked kale
  • 1 cup navy, pinto, kidney, garbanzo or cannellini beans
  • Heaping ½ cup edamame 
  • ½ cup tofu prepared with calcium sulfate
  • 2 oz almonds (½ cup)
  • Fortified plant-based milks

A word about plant based milks: they don’t naturally contain a lot of calcium. Check your labels. Pick a brand that has at least as much calcium as cow’s milk, which is 200 mg per cup. Some brands have 300-400 mg per cup. If the calcium is listed as a percentage, you want at least 20% of the Daily Recommended Value.

Strontium

Strontium is not an essential mineral, meaning you don’t need to consume it in order to stay alive. However it is present in some foods and drinking water, and therefore in your body. Most people eat about 4 mg of strontium each day. 

Strontium is poorly absorbed, but what is absorbed settles in the bones. It increases bone density when it is incorporated into the bone structure. Strontium also promotes the formation of new bone tissue (1). 

Whole wheat and wheat bran, root vegetables and leafy greens like spinach and lettuce all contain strontium. 

Copper

Your bones are made up of a matrix of minerals. Copper is inserted into this matrix as a stabilizer that strengthens the crosslinks in the tissue. You only need less than a milligram of copper each day, which is a very small amount.

Here are some good plant based food sources of copper:

  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Legumes and lentils
  • Baked potato
  • Dried fruits like raisins, dates, figs and prunes
  • Avocado
  • Dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao)

Zinc

Alkaline phosphatase is an enzyme that regulates the mineralization of bones. You need zinc to make alkaline phosphatase, in fact each molecule of alk phos needs 4 atoms of zinc in order to function. 

Here are some ways to get zinc in a plant based diet:

  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Lentils
  • Pine nuts
  • Cashews
  • Almonds
  • Peanuts
  • Whole grains

Selenium

You don’t have a huge amount of selenium in your body, but a fairly large amount of it is in your bones. People with a selenium deficiency tend to grow their bones and joint cartilage more slowly.

Here are some good sources of selenium from plants:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Fortified cereals and enriched pasta

Here are some more plant based foods that have smaller amounts of selenium:

  • Cashews
  • Brown or white rice
  • Quinoa
  • Spinach
  • Peanut butter
  • Lentils

Boron

Boron is not considered an essential mineral. In other words, you do not need boron to stay alive. However it can help you stay healthy.

Boron is directly related to bone health, as it regulates the activity of osteoclasts and osteoblasts (2). These are the cells that break down and build up your bones.

You can get plenty of boron from the following plant based foods:

  • Prunes
  • Raisins
  • Avocados
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Pecans
  • Grapes

Potassium

Potassium regulates the acid-base balance in your body. When the balance tips toward acidic, your body will dump some alkaline minerals into the bloodstream to even it out (3). Guess where those minerals can come from? Your bones.  

When you eat less sodium and more potassium, your body is able to retain more calcium. Here are some of the many plant based sources of potassium:

  • Prunes
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Mango
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Seeds 

Magnesium

Over half the magnesium in your body is in your bones. People with osteoporosis are frequently deficient in magnesium. Studies show that magnesium regulates levels of parathyroid hormone, which stimulates calcium release from your bone (4). 

You can get magnesium from the following plant-based foods:

  • Dark green vegetables (Magnesium is part of the chlorophyll molecule.)
  • Legumes and lentils
  • Sunflower seeds 
  • Almonds
  • Cashews
  • Walnuts
  • Peanuts
  • Edamame 
  • Avocado
  • Banana
  • Baked potato
  • Oatmeal
  • Brown rice
  • Coffee and chocolate
  • Blackstrap molasses

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is the second most abundant mineral in the body after calcium, and 85% of it is in your bones. It makes up the bone structure itself, and is found in the fluid surrounding your bone. 

Phosphorus plays a role in regulating the osteoclasts and osteoblasts – cells that break down and build up your bones.

Most people in the United States are getting plenty of phosphorus, since it is an ingredient in soda. But you can get this mineral without drinking soda or eating animal products. Walnuts, pecans, peanut butter, legumes and whole wheat are all good sources of phosphorus.

Manganese

Manganese helps to hold together the connective tissue in your bones. This mineral is easy to get from a plant based diet. Here are some plant foods that provide plenty of manganese:

  • Wheat germ and whole wheat
  • Oatmeal
  • Almonds
  • Pecans
  • Cashews
  • Hazelnuts
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Pineapple
  • Blueberries 
  • Tea
  • Legumes 

Iron

You only need a very small amount of iron in your bones, but it plays a crucial role in holding together the collagen matrix. It is a little bit trickier to get iron from plant foods, because the form in plants is not absorbed as easily as that in animal products.

Here are some plant based foods that are a good source of iron:

  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Dried apricots
  • Cashews
  • Leafy greens like spinach, collards and kale
  • Broccoli
  • Peas 
  • Quinoa
  • Enriched pasta and rice

How To Increase Iron Absorption

You can increase the amount of iron you get from the food list above by eating those foods with some vitamin C. This can be things like an orange, some strawberries, or some bell pepper strips. See the section on vitamin C for more ideas. If you regularly take a vitamin C supplement, take it at the same time you eat your iron-rich foods.

If you need more help getting enough iron in your diet, try the Lucky Iron Fish. This is literally a small cast iron fish that you can drop in soups, stews or boil in water to increase the iron content. Be sure to follow the directions so that you get enough, but not too much, iron.

Silicon

You may not think of silicon as something that your body needs, and it is not yet considered an essential nutrient. However it is very important for proper growth and development of bones and collagen. Those with silicon deficiency tend to have smaller and less flexible bones, and less collagen (5).  

Silicon is widely available in plant based foods like the following:

  • Whole grains
  • Lentils
  • Soybeans
  • Bananas
  • Pineapple
  • Mango
  • Green beans
  • Spinach
  • Root vegetables
  • Dried fruits
  • Nuts 
  • Sugar cane

Plant Based Vitamins For Strong Bones

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is an antioxidant that decreases oxidative stress in your body. This is important for bone health. When oxidative stress gets higher, osteoclasts begin to break down bone.

While there is evidence that vitamin A can help to increase bone density, there are a lot of conflicting studies. Some of the research shows that too much vitamin A is not good for bones. It’s a good idea to get vitamin A from your diet rather than mega-dosing with supplements (6).  

Beta carotene is the form of vitamin A found in plant foods. It is converted to active vitamin A in your body. Orange, yellow and dark green fruits and vegetables contain beta carotene:

  • Pumpkin
  • Yellow squash
  • Carrots
  • Dark leafy greens (the chlorophyll covers up the orange pigment)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cantaloupe 

Vitamin D

The role of vitamin D in bone mineral density is pretty well known by now. Most people who are concerned about their bone health are taking a vitamin D supplement. 

Vitamin D helps your body to absorb the calcium that you eat. It also helps the kidneys to reabsorb calcium back into your bloodstream, so that you don’t lose it in your urine.

You make vitamin D in your skin when it is exposed to sunlight. However, people who live in colder climates, or who wear sunscreen all the time, might not get enough UV rays to make vitamin D. Also, the older you get, the less efficiently you produce vitamin D in your skin.

Vitamin D is found mostly in animal products, like fatty fish and fortified dairy products. Just about the only plant based food that supplies vitamin D is mushrooms that have been specifically exposed to UV light before they are harvested (7). Some plant-based milks and orange juice are fortified with vitamin D. 

Vitamin D levels are affected by many things, like sunlight exposure, how efficiently you produce it in your skin, your diet, how well you absorb fats, and your genetics. Supplements are not a one-size-fits-all! It’s very important to have your levels tested and get professional advice on how much you need to supplement.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K goes along with vitamin D. Many people know that it’s a good idea to supplement these two vitamins together. Vitamin K helps along the reaction that binds calcium to the matrix in your bones. It gets calcium into your bones, so that it doesn’t accumulate in other tissues of your body (8).

Vitamin K is mostly found in plant based foods. Here are some of the best ways to get it in your meals:

  • Turnip greens
  • Kale 
  • Swiss chard
  • Spinach
  • Collard greens
  • Watercress 

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is necessary to build any type of connective tissue in your body. It creates the glue that holds your cells together. This is especially important for forming the collagen in your bones. Collagen is a type of connective tissue.

It is easy to get vitamin C from plants. Here are some of the best choices:

  • Citrus fruits
  • Tomato juice
  • Papaya 
  • Bell peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Camu camu
  • Cantaloupe 
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts

Plant Based Protein For Strong Bones

Your bone matrix is the structural framework that supports your muscles and tissues. About 90% of this matrix is collagen, which is a protein (9). You need to eat enough protein to build and repair this matrix, along with all the other protein requirements in your body.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. Some amino acids can be made in your body, but nine or so of them need to come from foods you eat.

Can you get all your protein from plants? The answer is yes! It helps if you are willing and able to eat a variety of different foods like nuts, seeds, grains and legumes.

Why should you eat a variety of different plant based proteins?

If you only rely on nuts, or one type of bean, for protein, you probably aren’t getting all the essential amino acids. This is because plant based foods generally have an incomplete set. They each contain some of the essential amino acids, but not all of them, and each has a different amino acid profile.

You can get all the essential amino acids by eating a variety of different plant based foods. Here are some protein-rich plant based food combinations:

  • nuts or seeds + grains, like a peanut butter sandwich, or oatmeal with walnuts
  • beans + grains, like a bean taco or enchilada, chili with crackers, or rice and beans
  • beans + nuts or seeds, like hummus made from tahini and chickpeas, or a salad with cannellini beans and sunflower seeds 

Do you need to eat these food combinations all at once, to make a complete protein in one meal? No! Just try to get them all in during the course of your day.

Here are some plant based foods that have higher quality protein:

  • Soy products like edamame or tofu
  • Quinoa
  • Buckwheat
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds

Level up with a plant based milk, protein powder or shake.

Find a plant based milk that you like, that gives you at least the same amount of protein as cow’s milk. This is 8 grams of protein per cup. Check your label to make sure the protein is there. You will be surprised at the range of protein in different plant based milks.

Throw some protein powder in a smoothie, or drink a protein shake. Try to find a clean product with the least amount of ingredients. 

Here are some examples of companies that sell protein powders with minimal ingredients:

I like OWYN and Ripple protein shakes.

Do you have a favorite protein powder or shake? Please tell us all about it in the comments!

Eating an Alkaline Diet For Strong Bones

Remember what I said about your body taking minerals from bone to keep the acid-base balance normal? Base is the same thing as alkaline. Your body wants to be at a slightly alkaline pH.

Read more about your pH, the alkaline diet and alkaline foods.   

An alkaline diet is made up largely of plants. Foods that make your body more acidic include meat, milk products, butter, eggs, sugary foods and fried foods. When you eat a diet that is mostly plants, your body can naturally stay at the alkaline level where everything thrives.

Putting It All Together

Does this all seem super complicated? Do you really have to pay attention to like, 17 different nutrients every day? It doesn’t have to be that hard. Here are some tips for a plant based, bone-healthy diet.

  1. Eat leafy greens every day. You might have noticed that about three quarters of the food lists in this article contain leafy greens. They contain many of the minerals and vitamins that you need, and even a small amount of protein.
  2. Eat whole grains as much as you possibly can. Refined flours are stripped of their mineral content. Yes, a few vitamins are added back, along with iron. But whole grains will give you much more nutrition, and feed your gut bacteria as well.
  3. Eat a variety of plant based protein foods. Include nuts and seeds, grains and legumes every day.
  4. Find a good protein powder or shake to give you that boost and make sure you meet your target on most days.
  5. Eat at least 5 different vegetables every day, and 2 different fruits. If you can eat more, go for it!
  6. Stick to whole foods, with the least processing and minimal ingredients. This will help you to lower inflammation in your gut and your body.

The Last Crumb

You don’t need to eat meat and other animal products to have strong bones. Most of the nutrients you need are right there in the plant kingdom. 

It still might be a good idea to supplement certain nutrients, such as vitamin D, that are harder to find in plants. Be sure to get tested to make sure you are getting the right amount. 

Need more help? I am here for you. I specialize in helping men and women eat the right foods to stay strong all through life. If you want to learn more, just click the button below to set up a free phone call.

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