Eating for Bone Health
The best food sources of calcium and other nutrients for strong bones
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You know that calcium is critical to strengthen teeth and prevent osteoporosis—but it’s not the only nutrient that you need for healthy teeth and bones. Magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin K, copper, zinc, and other nutrients play a crucial role in maintaining bone density.
Protein is also important—while it was once thought that a high-protein diet caused the body to lose calcium, more recent research suggests that a high intake of protein actually boosts intestinal calcium absorption. Several studies also point to a link between protein intake and improved bone mineral density.
Plenty of plant foods are rich sources of calcium and other supportive nutrients for vegan or dairy-free diets. Keep your skeleton healthy and strong with these seven bone-building foods.
1. Collard greens
Especially important for people who don’t eat dairy, collard greens are an excellent source of calcium, with about 270 mg per cup of cooked collards. They’re also high in magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin K, and other nutrients needed for bone health. Turnip greens, mustard greens, beet greens, and kale are also great sources of calcium and other bone-building nutrients. While spinach is rich in calcium, it’s also high in oxalates, compounds that are thought to inhibit calcium absorption, though studies are mixed.
Recipe Tips: Simmer chopped collards in broth with diced sweet potatoes, onions, and white beans; combine shredded collards, carrots, green apples and red cabbage with a tahini-honey dressing for a colorful slaw; toss torn collard leaves with olive oil and garlic salt, roast until crispy, then sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese.
2. Cottage cheese
This unsung hero of the dairy world is rich in calcium—one cup has 138 mg, or about 14 percent of the RDI. Cottage cheese is extremely high in protein (25 grams per cup) and selenium, which may play a part in bone health. Some studies suggest that calcium from dairy is more efficiently absorbed by the body than calcium from other foods.
Recipe Tips: Blend cottage cheese with a splash of milk until creamy, then simmer with minced garlic and grated cheese for a healthy Alfredo sauce; mash cottage cheese with avocado, then spread on toast and top with chopped olives and tomatoes; purée cottage cheese, honey, and cardamom, stir in chopped pistachios, and spoon into Medjool dates.
Made from ground sesame seeds, this traditional Middle Eastern ingredient is packed with calcium—126 mg in 2 tablespoons—and it’s also rich in magnesium and copper. Sesame seeds, poppy seeds, and chia seeds are also good sources of calcium, magnesium, and copper.
Recipe Tips: Roast eggplant, onions, and garlic, then purée with tahini, cumin, and cilantro for a Middle Eastern dip; combine tahini, coconut milk, and honey or agave, stir in black sesame seeds, and freeze in popsicle molds; cook carrots, onions, and ginger in broth, then purée with tahini and white miso until creamy.
4. Bone-in sardines
They’re packed with calcium: one can (3.75 ounces) of bone-in sardines has 351 mg. Sardines are also loaded with protein and vitamin D, with about 100 percent of the RDI in a one-can serving. They’re also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which play a part in bone health, and they’re lower in mercury and other toxins than larger fatty fish. Canned bone-in salmon is another good source; look for water-packed varieties of both.
Recipe Tips: Simmer sardines with tomato sauce, shallots, and saffron, then garnish with parsley; sauté sardines in olive oil with onions, cherry tomatoes, black olives, and chopped kale; grill escarole and radicchio until tender, then top with warm sardines and grated Parmesan cheese.
One of the best ways to get calcium on a vegan diet is with tofu, which has as much as 850 mg in a half-cup serving, depending on the coagulant used to bind the proteins. Studies suggest that calcium absorption from tofu is comparable to that from cow’s milk. Tofu is also high in protein and is an excellent source of bone-supportive magnesium, copper, and zinc. Look for firm varieties made with calcium sulfate, the most commonly used coagulant.
Recipe Tips: Mix crumbled tofu with chopped scallions, chives, vegan or regular mayo, and a pinch of turmeric for “egg” salad; thread tofu on skewers with mushrooms, tomatoes, and green peppers, brush with olive oil and grill; marinate cubed tofu in sesame oil, tamari, and garlic powder, toss in cornstarch, and bake until crispy.
Related: 6 Ways to Reduce Osteoporosis
6. Parmesan cheese
All cheeses have calcium, but hard, aged cheeses have significantly more. One ounce of Parmesan cheese contains 331 mg of calcium, and hard goat, Romano, and Gruyere cheeses range from 250 to 300 mg per ounce. Edam, part-skim mozzarella, Swiss, Muenster, and provolone range from 150 to 225 mg per ounce. Softer cheese such as Brie, Neufchâtel, and soft goat cheese are much lower, with about 50 mg per ounce. Parmesan cheese is also a great source of selenium.
Recipe Tips: Mix grated Parmesan with garlic powder and dried rosemary, drop by tablespoons onto a baking sheet, and bake until crispy for grain-free crackers; toss roasted Brussels sprouts, delicata squash, and red onions with balsamic glaze, then shower with shaved Parmesan or Romano; arrange thick slices of tomatoes on a baking sheet, top with grated Parmesan, bake until melted, and top with minced basil.
7. White beans
Most beans have decent amounts of calcium, but white beans top the list with 161 mg in a one-cup serving. They’re also rich in magnesium, copper, zinc, and protein. Because beans also contain phytates, compounds that interfere with the absorption of calcium, soak dried beans in water for 6 hours, then drain and rinse before cooking to reduce the content of phytates. Make a big batch, then freeze one- or two-cup servings in quart-sized freezer bags.
Recipe Tips: Sauté white beans in olive oil with sardines, shredded collards, and Kalamata olives, then toss with penne pasta and Romano cheese; make a hummus with white beans, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and roasted red peppers; mash white beans with cooked sweet potatoes for a high-calcium twist on mashed potatoes.