Thanks to nutrition student Debbie Fong for contributing as a guest blogger to this post!

Calcium helps build and maintain bones, as well as facilitating blood clotting, transmission of nerve signals and muscle contraction. The body uses calcium everyday to build strong bones, nails and hair yet, we cannot produce new calcium. Ideally, we should obtain calcium from food, rather than calcium pills, to replenish our daily loss of calcium.

Milk – does a body good?
Many of us have probably seen dairy commercials featuring white mustaches and the slogan “Milk does a body good”. We continue to be led to believe that not consuming cow’s milk and other dairy products will jeopardize our bone health. Let’s explore the evidence to helps us understand the role of dairy in bone health.

Dairy is undoubtedly a good source of calcium, but it is also one of the greatest sources of saturated fat and cholesterol.  Dairy also has a large environmental impact.  Increasing research findings are refuting the conventional wisdom that dairy products are essential to build strong bones.  A worldwide study released in 2011 revealed the highest rates of incidence of hip fracture in Sweden and North America, where dairy consumption is high, while Asian and Latin American populations with much lower dairy intake exhibited much lower rates.  Another study published in the British Medical Journal two years ago involved more than 100,000 Swedish adults and showed a positive association between higher intake of non-fermented dairy products and higher rates of fractures and death.  Several other independent studies and meta-analyses (which are compilations of studies) suggested that higher dairy consumption might increase the risk of certain cancers, such as prostate cancer and ovarian cancer.  The evidence regarding the purported health benefits of dairy products is inconclusive and conflicting.

Plant-based sources of calcium
Many plant-based foods and non-dairy beverages are rich in bioavailable calcium. Some examples include enriched soy milk, enriched cashew milk, dark-green leafy and cruciferous vegetables, such as kale, collards and turnip greens, and seeds, such as sesame, and calcium-fortified tofu. The packaged deal that comes with these calcium-rich plant foods includes fibre, phytonutrients and micronutrients, such as folate and potassium. Studies show that plant-based eaters with adequate intake of bone-nurturing nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D and protein, are not at greater risk of osteoporosis than meat-eaters.
Getting adequate calcium from plant foods may be easier than you think. Let’s put it in perspective. Most adults are advised to obtain 1,000 – 1,200 mg of calcium per day. A cup of calcium-enriched soymilk, almond beverage or orange juice yields more than 300 mg of calcium (vs. approximately 350 mg of calcium in a cup of cow’s milk). [Be sure to shake fortified beverages well though to avoid the calcium settling to the bottom of the carton.] A 175-gram cup of soy-based yogurt contains slightly over 200 mg of calcium, which is comparable to dairy-based yogurt. Half a cup of cooked collard greens or tofu contains more calcium than the same quantity of dairy cheese, while offering added benefits of fibre and various micronutrients without the undesirable saturated fat.

Check out this handy list of vegan sources of calcium!

Tips for bone health
The science is not clear-cut with regard to the effect of animal protein vs. plant protein on bone health. It is, therefore, important not to assume that plant-based diets ‘automatically’ confer bone-health benefits. In addition to adequate calcium intake, adequate absorption needs to be considered. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption. Some of us may be under the impression that cow’s milk naturally contains vitamin D. In fact, vitamin D exists in cow’s milk as a result of fortification, as in non-dairy beverages. Other dairy products, such as cheese and ice-cream, are not routinely fortified though. Also, not all calcium-containing vegetables are created equal. For example, collards, broccoli and Chinese cabbage have calcium which is more easily absorbed than spinach and swiss chard .

Healthy lifestyle choices can also help to promote bone health. Some examples of these healthy lifestyle choices are weight-bearing exercises (such as weight-lifting, walking and running), avoiding smoking, limiting alcohol, caffeine and salt intake, and eating a balanced diet full of fruit and vegetables. Plant foods are much richer in other bone-protective vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin K, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus as well as anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, than animal products. Some learning and diet-planning can help our bones go a much longer way!
Try these delicious and easy recipes  to increase calcium intake and build healthy bones:

(Recipe from Oh She Glows )

When you visit a supermarket, it won’t be hard to notice how popular kale chips are. Packaged kale chips are expensive. Home-made kale chips are fresher, much more economical and equally delicious. They make a healthy alternative to potato chips. They can also be crumbled to garnish other dishes.

• approx. 1/2 bunch kale leaves
• 1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil or melted coconut oil
• 1.5 tablespoons nutritional yeast
• 1 teaspoon garlic powder
• 3/4 teaspoon chili powder
• 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
• 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
• 1/4 teaspoon fine grain sea salt or pink Himalayan sea salt
• 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 300F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Remove leaves from the stems of the kale and roughly tear it up into large pieces. [The stems can be frozen for smoothies.] Wash and spin the leaves until thoroughly dry.
3. Add kale leaves into a large bowl. Massage in the oil until all the nooks and crannies are coated in oil. Now sprinkle on the spices/seasonings and toss to combine.
4. Spread out the kale onto the prepared baking sheet into a single layer, being sure not to overcrowd the kale.
5. Bake for 10 minutes, rotate the pan, and bake for another 12-15 minutes more until the kale begins to firm up. The kale will look shrunken, but this is normal.
6. Cool the kale on the sheet for 3 minutes before serving. Enjoy immediately or store in air-tight jars to avoid the chips losing crispiness.
7. Repeat this process for the other half of the bunch.

(Recipe from One Green Planet )

These tempeh nuggets can be served as a standalone dish or added to a grain or vegetable salad.

• 2 blocks tempeh, cubed
• 1/4 cup tahini
• 2 tablespoons lime juice
• 1 tablespoons nutritional yeast
• 1 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
• 1/2 tablespoon garlic powder
• 2 tablespoons water
• Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Combine marinade in a large bowl, adding water last to reach desired consistency. It should be thick and fluid, but not too batter-like.
2. Add tempeh to the bowl and toss with marinade. Let sit for 10 minutes.
3. While the tempeh is being marinated, preheat the oven to 350°F.
4. Spread tempeh in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet and place in the oven for 35-40 minutes, until the outside edges are crisped.
5. Remove tempeh from the oven, and serve warm.

Final thoughts
Obtaining calcium from plant foods is neither difficult nor risky; it is simply different than the traditional reliance on cow’s milk. For optimal bone health, we can all obtain adequate calcium, protein and vitamin D from a variety of plant foods and embrace bone-healthy lifestyle choices.