Bones grow until we’re about 20 years old and then stop – but they don’t then become just a lifeless structure supporting our body. Bones wear and are damaged so they need to be continually repaired. Worn bits are cleared away and special cells (osteoblasts) move into the gap and build new bone around themselves. Hidden inside bones’ central cavities is bone marrow – very important because it’s where blood cells are made.
Bones support and protect vital organs, anchor your muscles and store minerals such as calcium and phosphorus. The amount of calcium in your bones is tightly linked to calcium levels in your blood and exchanges take place between the two when the levels in your blood are not right. This mechanism is influenced by hormones but it’s diet that plays the major role. Ninety-nine per cent of your body’s calcium is in your skeleton and it follows that any effect of your diet, medication or lifestyle on your body’s calcium balance will also affect your bones.
The human body is a finely-tuned organism that works best under certain conditions and is very sensitive to any changes in those conditions. One of the most important characteristics is a stable balance between acid and alkalis in the blood. Everything we eat or drink is either acid or alkali forming. When it’s acid that’s formed, the body needs to employ one of its buffer systems – namely the skeleton – to neutralise the acid by releasing calcium. Both calcium and acid are then excreted in urine and only a fraction of the used calcium can be returned to the bones.
Some foods produce a lot of acid when digested and one of the biggest is animal protein because of its high sulphur content which is turned into sulphuric acid in the body. All animal products are similarly acidifying, flooding the body with acid, which can cause a permanent state of acid overload and this in turn can lead to numerous health problems. Sugary foods also generate large quantities of acid while most cereal products are mild acid producers.
Potassium and magnesium are mainly contained in plant foods and, together with calcium, determine alkaline load. It follows that most vegetables, many fruits (including citrus) and nuts and seeds – such as almonds, Brazil nuts, sesame seeds and flaxseed, lentils, butter beans and tofu are all alkali-producing foods. Some grains, such as millet, quinoa, spelt, wild rice and buckwheat are also alkalising or are in the ‘neutral’ zone.
It is almost impossible to eat only alkaline foods and, anyway, you do need some acidifying foods to maintain a healthy balance. The ideal ratio is around 70:30 of alkalising foods to acidic-producing foods. It means you can still have biscuits, coffee or crumpets alongside your bone-healthy, alkalising foods but it’s best to steer away from animal products.
We’re told constantly that dairy products contain calcium but the other part of the equation is never mentioned – they also contain animal protein and the acid this creates outweighs the alkalis formed by the calcium. The overall effect is to acidify your body and as a result it uses up more calcium to neutralise the acid than the dairy products can provide. There is an overwhelming amount of scientific data showing that dairy products do not offer any benefit for bones and the number of experts now advising you not to consume dairy is growing rapidly.
Of course we need calcium to have healthy bones but most of all we need the right acid-alkali balance and, as many studies show, diets based on plants are not only more alkalising than meat diets can ever be but they also provide the whole ‘package’ of goodies needed for healthy bones. It includes vitamins A, C, K and the B group as well as important minerals – calcium (enough for our daily needs), magnesium, potassium, selenium, boron, iron, copper, zinc, etc.
Recent research also identified the importance of isoflavones – natural substances found in soya. They seem to have a significant beneficial effect on bone health, slowing down the rate of loss and stimulating new growth.
So, a healthy, plant-based diet is essential for building and maintaining healthy bones but there’s another factor absolutely essential for bone strength – exercise. Bone adapts to the weight and pressure that’s applied to it and it needs this stimulation to stay strong. There’s no need to sweat your socks off but moderate, weight-bearing exercise is a must. This means walking, carrying shopping bags, dancing, gardening, ball games, jogging, yoga, weight-lifting and other simple things. There are, however, a couple of activities that, although being good for your overall health, don’t stimulate bones that much: swimming and cycling.
If possible, choose an activity you can do outdoors because your bones also need vitamin D, which is manufactured in the skin when it’s exposed to daylight. You need at least 15 minutes a day outside without sunscreen for your skin to do its stuff and make enough of this vitamin. Many foods are now enriched with vitamin D, such as margarines, cereals, soya milk, but it’s always best to get it the natural way.
Osteoporosis – or brittle bone disease – affects millions of people around the world. In the UK alone, almost three million people have it. Osteoporosis has two main characteristics: low bone density and deterioration of bone structure. Together, these result in fragile bones and an increased risk of fractures. It’s estimated that in the UK, one in two women and one in five men will suffer a fracture after the age of 50.
The UK is one of the countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis and also one of the biggest consumers of dairy and other animal products. Even the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for preventing osteoporosis acknowledge this ‘calcium paradox’ as it calls it – that countries with the highest intake of dairy have the highest rates of osteoporosis.
A number of studies show that calcium and vitamin D supplements, often recommended for better bone health, are not effective in preventing fractures. Osteoporosis is not a disease caused by a lack of calcium, therefore simply adding more calcium into your system won’t help.
Science is rapidly coming to the conclusion that a diet high in alkalising plant foods, coupled with regular weightbearing exercise, is the way to grow healthy bones and preserve them. Forget the white milk moustache – it should be green!
Viva! Health is launching a new campaign – Break Free – bringing you a special Break Free diet based on the principles outlined in the article. Download or order our fully-referenced Break Free report, which explains the science, lists alkali and acid producing foods and gives you countless examples of how and why the diet works.