Nutrients for strong bones! Your baby can get all the essential nutrition for bone health from plants. Here are the best plant foods for strong bones.
We often hear that calcium-rich cow’s milk is a non-negotiable when it comes to our babe’s bone health.
While it’s true that dairy products are good sources of calcium, they aren’t the only – or necessarily the best – sources of this important mineral.
In fact, your baby doesn’t need dairy at all if your family chooses not to consume it.
What’s more, while calcium often takes the spotlight when talking about strong bones, there are other important nutrients to include in your child’s diet to support his or her skeletal development: vitamin D, vitamin K, and phosphorus.
It’s the combination of all these nutrients working together that supports strong bones.
Research shows that when plant-based kids receive adequate amounts of key bone-building nutrients, they achieve optimal bone mineral density, just like omnivores.
Even better, you can find all of these nutrients on a predominantly plant-based diet. So, no cow’s milk? No problem!
Here’s a look at the 4 major bone health nutrients and where you can find them on a plant-based diet.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that boosts the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from foods, which are needed for bone formation and maintenance.
Without enough vitamin D, your body can’t produce the hormone calcitriol, which leads to insufficient calcium absorption.
If there’s not enough calcium absorbed from diet, your body takes it from the skeleton, which leads to weakened bones and prevents new bone formation.
The RDA for vitamin D is as follows:
- 0-12 months: 400 IU
- 1-50 years: 600 IU
Some of the best sources of vitamin D on a plant-based diet include:
- The sun. Our skin produces vitamin D when exposed to direct sunlight. Some studies estimate that it only takes 15-30 minutes per day to make the vitamin D you need. There are several factors that determine how effective this process is, such as skin pigmentation, age, gender, and time of day. People who live further from the equator or in areas where there’s cloud cover much of the year have less direct sun exposure. Note that babies and young kids should stay out of direct sunlight as much as possible and use sunscreen or sun-protective clothing, as too much sunlight can be damaging to the skin and increase risk for skin cancer.
- Fortified plant milks: Check the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel to determine whether your plant-based milk has been fortified with vitamin D. We recommend unsweetened soy or pea milk for babes, as these are nutrient-dense and offer the most protein per serving, but your family may also choose to rotate other vitamin D-fortified plant-based milks in as well.
- UV-treated mushrooms: Like humans, mushrooms can produce vitamin D when they’re exposed to ultraviolet radiation, or sunlight, during their growing process. Not all mushrooms have been grown to be a good source of vitamin D, but you should be able to identify vitamin D-rich varieties by labeling on their package.
- Fortified cereals: Some breakfast cereals and oatmeal are fortified with vitamin D. Look at the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel to determine if yours is a good source.
Note that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all breastfed babies receive 400 IU of vitamin D per day to meet requirements.
This is because vitamin D doesn’t typically transfer adequately through breast milk. Formula-fed babies will get their vitamin D needs met through fortified formula.
Vitamin K is another fat-soluble vitamin, which your body needs to make proteins involved in bone formation and strengthening. For instance, osteocalcin is a protein that needs vitamin K in order to make bone tissue.
The Adequate Intakes (AI) for vitamin K are as follows:
- 0-6 months: 2 mcg
- 7-12 months: 2.5 mcg
- 1-3 years: 30 mcg
- 4-8 years: 55 mcg
- 9-13 years: 60 mcg
- 14-18 years: 75 mcg
Some of the best sources of vitamin K on a plant-based diet include:
- Leafy greens. Dark leafy green veggies – like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts – are packed with vitamin K. Your baby might enjoy these blended into smoothies (or frozen into blended popsicles!), sauteed/pureed, incorporated into lasagna or veggie burgers, or even raw as age appropriate.
- Broccoli and cauliflower. One-half cup of cooked broccoli provides 92% of the daily needs for vitamin K, and one cup of raw cauliflower provides 20%. We love these cruciferous veggies because they can be served raw, steamed, roasted, or chopped up and incorporated into a number of family-friendly meals and snacks.
- Blueberries. One cup of raw, fresh blueberries contains 36% of the daily vitamin K requirement. We love serving them as-is, blended into smoothies, or to make our Blueberry Chickpea Cookie Dough Balls.
- Green peas. One cup of boiled of cooked green peas provides 46% of the our vitamin K needs. In our homes peas are often served fresh, added to smoothies (yes, you read that right!), or mixed into pastas, soups, or mashed potatoes.
Phosphorus works with calcium to build and maintain strong bones, and the levels of the two are regulated in part by vitamin D.
The RDA for phosphorus are as follows:
- 0-6 months: 100 mg
- 7-12 months: 275 mg
- 1-3 years: 460 mg
- 4-8 years: 500 mg
- 9-18 years: 1250 mg
Some of the best sources of phosphorus on a plant-based diet include:
- Legumes. These include beans, peas, and lentils. In one cup of boiled red kidney beans, you’ll find 250 mg of phosphorus.
- Whole soy foods and soy milk: Soy foods like tofu and tempeh, and soy milk, are made from soybeans, which are phosphorus-rich legumes. One cup of soy milk contains around 100 mg of phosphorus.
- Nuts: Nuts, especially Brazil nuts, cashews, almonds, pine nuts, and pistachios, are full of phosphorus. For babies and young kids, nut butters are a great alternative that you can either find in stores or make at home with a food processor or high speed blender.
- Pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds and pepitas (pumpkin seeds with their outer shell removed) offer over 300 mg of phosphorus in just one ounce.
Calcium is crucial to bone formation and maintenance. The body does not produce calcium itself, which means we have to get enough through our diet.
When dietary calcium is lacking, calcium is pulled from internal stores found in the bones and teeth – so it’s super important to eat calcium-rich foods!
The RDA for calcium are as follows:
- 0-6 months: 200 mg
- 7-12 months: 260 mg
- 1-3 years: 700 mg
- 4-8 years: 1000 mg
- 9-18 years: 1300 mg
Some of the best sources of calcium on a plant-based diet include:
- Soy milk. One cup of calcium-fortified soy milk contains 300 mg of calcium, which is the same amount you’ll find in a glass of dairy milk. We often serve soy milk on its own with meals, or use in in smoothies, as a base for sauces or creamy soups, and in baking.
- Tofu. Tofu in general is a good source of calcium, but tofu that has been calcium-set provides even more. You can determine whether its been calcium-set by looking at the ingredient list, which will tell you it was made using calcium sulfate. Our kids enjoy Baked Tofu Nuggets regularly!
- Sesame seeds. Sesame seeds are so tiny that they can easily be sprinkled on a number of foods, or you might choose to use tahini (sesame seed butter) for a spreadable option.
- Chia seeds. These little nutrition powerhouses are an excellent source of calcium. We like to add them to smoothies, oatmeal, and baked goods like muffins. Just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds offers 180 mg of calcium.
There you have it: nutrients for strong bones! Good nutrition is essential for the proper growth and development of our babes, and there are more nutrients for bone health than just calcium, which all work together. Including foods that are also rich in phosphorus, vitamin D, and vitamin K can make sure you’re feeding baby a plant-based diet for strong bones.
Chime In: What are some of your family’s favorite foods to eat for strong bones? Did you see any of them in this post?
If you found this article helpful, we think you should check these out too: