It's National Osteoporosis Awareness and Prevention Month--time to bone up on bone health. Approximately 10 million Americans suffer from osteoporosis, and 34 million more have low bone mass, putting them at risk for the disease. Osteoporosis-related fractures are expected to cost Americans a back-breaking $25 billion by 2025.
Some people think that you can prevent osteoporosis simply by eating calcium-rich foods, but when it comes to building strong bones, what you don't eat is just as important as what you do. Before you race to the store for a gallon of milk, know that osteoporosis is not generally caused by inadequate calcium intake but rather by rapid calcium loss. If you want to build and maintain strong bones, dumping dairy products and eating a wholesome vegan diet is a good place to start.
Animal protein, sodium and, to some extent, caffeine leech calcium from the bones (it is excreted in the urine), causing severe bone deterioration. Dairy products contain significant amounts of protein and sodium, and studies suggest that not only does dairy consumption not reduce osteoporotic bone loss, it might even contribute to it. A 12-year Harvard study of 78,000 women found that those who drank milk three times a day actually broke more bones than did women who rarely drank milk.
Calcium intake alone does not protect against osteoporosis, nor does a low-calcium intake signify a fracture risk. People living in countries with the lowest calcium intake rates tend to have fewer fractures than do those living in countries with higher rates. This is likely because the countries with high calcium intake rates--such as the U.S.--also tend to have high protein intake rates from consuming large amounts of meat and dairy products.
According to the World Health Organization, the recommended calcium allowance is higher in the U.S. than in other parts of the world, partly because Americans eat such a meat-heavy diet. A report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that when animal proteins were eliminated from the diet, calcium losses were cut in half. Experts believe that because vegans don't consume the excessive protein found in meat, eggs and dairy products, they are able to process calcium more efficiently than can meat-eaters. And vegans tend to eat more fruits and vegetables, which, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, help stave off osteoporosis because they contain calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin K and other nutrients needed for healthy bones. Leafy greens, beans, almonds, broccoli, butternut squash, figs, oats, soy milk and tofu are especially good sources of calcium and magnesium.
Vitamin D, which helps the body use calcium, isn't naturally present in many foods, but it is added to some common foods. You can get vitamin D --without the fat and cholesterol found in cow's milk--from fortified soy and rice milks, orange juice and cereals as well as from supplements and, of course, sunshine.
Some risk factors for osteoporosis--age, sex, family history and bone size--are difficult to change, but you can reduce your risk for the disease by exercising, not smoking, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and cutting salt, meat, cheese and cow's milk out of your diet. It will do our bodies, animals and the environment good if we wean ourselves from dairy products and break our addiction to animal protein.
Heather Moore is a staff writer with the PETA Foundation, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.