Strong Bones on a Vegan Diet: Lessons from Japan

dumbbellsIf you’ve traveled to Japan (or live there) you may have encountered traditional squat toilets in public restrooms. They can be a little bit of a challenge to western women who are used to sitting.

I didn’t have any problem when I was in Japan many years ago because I was raised to squat. Public rest rooms did not have paper toilet seat liners when I was growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s. When I was little, my mother lined the seat with toilet paper so I could sit on a clean surface. Once I was tall enough, she taught me to squat.

Not that you need to know everything in the world about my public restroom habits, but I still squat. I don’t like to waste paper for one thing. I also like to challenge myself in ways that promote strength and balance as I get older. It’s possible that this is a habit that will protect my bones, too.

Comparisons among countries show that women in Japan have lower rates of hip fracture. And as I wrote about in Vegan for Her, this does not appear to be related to their diet. In fact, research shows that women in Japan don’t necessarily have less osteoporosis, even though they have fewer hip fractures. That tells us that something else is protecting them from breaking a hip.

Several years ago, a reader emailed me with this observation:

“I lived and traveled throughout Asia for several years as a child and saw people squatting everywhere; waiting for the bus, cooking over a fire, manning their shop, etc. Also I was confronted with many toilets that required squatting. […] I believe all that squatting is probably beneficial to hip bone density and probably helps balance as well.

I suspect that she is correct and that this is at least part of the explanation for lower hip fracture rates in Japan. Better balance translates to a lower risk of falling—a main cause of hip fractures. And strong muscles are related to strong bones.

We tend to get very focused on diet, especially calcium, when it comes to bone health, but bones are complex and so is the approach that keeps them strong. Here is a simple five point plan for protecting bones throughout the lifespan:

  • Eat calcium-rich foods like collards, kale, turnip greens, bok choy, fortified plant milks, fortified juices, and tofu.
  • Get plenty of protein from beans, soyfoods, and peanut butter. Protein improves calcium absorption and builds bone and muscle strength.
  • Get enough vitamin D from supplements or sunshine.
  • Eat lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. Nutrients in these foods, such as potassium, promote bone strength.
  • Work your muscles by staying active. Don’t be a couch or computer potato; instead stand up often, even if it’s just to do a few stretches. Be sure to do some type of regular muscle building exercise like weight lifting.

And the next time you’re out and about and nature calls? Skip the seat liner and squat instead.

Questions? Ask on the forum!

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