The quick answer: A vitamin you haven’t heard much about, K-2, is essential to bone health. (Yes, this is linked to animals eating vegetables.)
First an Apology
Yes, I'm sorry to say this post is a little long, but the subject is complex: bone health. There's much still unknown about building bones, hence we get conflicting advice. Here's my take on the subject in three steps:
- Vegetables are vital to humans, but also to the animals that feed us, in the form of green grass.
- The four essentials for bone health include the little-discussed vitamin K-2. A connection between osteoporosis and atherosclerosis (calcification) is also noted.
- Over the last 50 years we inadvertently reduced the K-2 in animal products by moving animals away from green grasses as a major feed. Eating food from pastured animals, rich in vitamin K-2, is critical to bone health.
It’s not hard to eat the recommended 3-4 daily servings of fruit—fruit is sweet and delicious. However, for most Americans, eating 4-5 daily portions of vegetables is a challenge. The evidence supports this: If you exclude French fries and ketchup, the average American averages just one daily vegetable serving. Our distain for vegetalbes gives those French food snobs one more reason to look down on us
For this reason, of our 52 Healthy Changes, eight are dedicated to the food group kids love least—vegetables:
#6 Set a family shopping goal for pounds vegetables.
#12 Eat green salads most days.
#19 Eat orange vegetables and fruits.
#25 Choose products of animals fed on vegetables (pasture grass).
#32 Add stock-based vegetable soups to your weekly menu.
#38 Eat cruciferous vegetables most days.
#45 Eat a serving of legumes most days.
#51 Add tubers to your menu.
Curiously, this post is about the vegetables eaten by the animals that supply us with food. As it turns out, your health is linked to their health, and that includes vitamin K-2.
Vegetables for Animals
The early colonists in America brought an important farming tradition—the common pasture. Families could leave their sheep, cows, and goats in the common pasture and a single herdsman would ensure the animal’s safety. At least one of these still exists, though as a park—the Boston Common.
Following WWII pastured animals, accustomed to eating green grass much of the year, became victims of a well-intentioned but misguided efficiency drive. The new idea was the CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation). Cattle spent six months in a feedlot eating grains, industrial wastes, and the bare minimum of hay, before going to market. The last thing you’ll see in a feedlot is green grass. Milk cows were taken from the pasture and tied to stanchions; energy used walking around now went into making milk. Chickens were confined to henhouse cages. Hogs were similarly caged and fed.
In every case, the natural vegetable of the animals, pasture grass, was replaced with the cheapest feed available—commodity grains and industrial waste. The CAFO was cost effective but inhumane and bad for the animals’ health. Because mankind eats the meat, eggs, and dairy products of these animals, healthy animal products were replaced by less healthy versions.
Remember the Creation account in Genesis, how man was given dominion—a responsibility of stewardship—over the beasts? There’s a hook in that relationship—we control their diet but our health depends on their health.
What Your Doctor Didn’t Have Time to Tell You About Bone Health
In a recent post we took a fresh look at the factors for strong bones. Your bone health began with what your mom ate during your fetal period. Now it depends on what you eat—whole foods are the source of needed minerals (calcium, and a balance between magnesium and phosphorous). Exercise matters. Strong muscles go with strong bones—use them or lose them. Vitamins matter too, especially D and K-2. In a prior post we discussed vitamin D. Today’s post is about K-2.
Vitamin K is a little like the essential omega-3 fats. The short-chain omega-3 fats are found in green plants, whether grass or algae. The animals that eat those greens produce essential long-chain omega-3 fats. So cold-water fish and eggs from free-range chickens, for example, are good sources. Our body makes the long-chain omega-3 fats but not enough; we need to get the rest from fish or animal products.
Vitamin K works the same. We get the K-1 form essential to blood clotting from green plants. Vitamin K-2 (menaquinone) is created in mammals that eat those green plants, during digestion, by bacteria acting upon the K-1. In the last 50 years, when we were moving animals from pastures to CAFOS, we unknowingly removed vitamin K-2 from our diet. The human body can make K-2 from K-1 via bacteria in our gut, but (like the long-chain omega-3) it’s not enough. Good bone health requires sufficient K-2 in our diet and that’s another reason to eat pastured meat and dairy products, sparingly.
To summarize, for good bone health do these things:
- Eat vegetables, fruits, and grains rather than processed foods for proper mineral balance.
- Make strong bones by building muscles through exercise (for more go here).
- Get a little noonday sun on your skin to make vitamin D (read more here.)
- Eat animal products from pastured animals rich in vitamin K-2. The less you eat, the more important the K-2 level is.
Osteoporosis and Calcification
Everyone knows about osteoporosis but few know about calcification. Calcification is the other side of the osteoporosis coin. If you don’t have the vitamins and minerals needed to move calcium into your bones, your body may deposit excess calcium in your soft tissue. This is called calcification—though little discussed it’s a big problem. Calcium, for example, is deposited in the plaque that coats your main arteries so plays a role in heart disease. Plaque consistently contains about 20% calcium; calcification makes your arteries rigid and inflexible.
The next big thing in healthy foods, I think, will be foods rich in vitamin K-2 from pastured animals. We have insufficient information about the K-2 levels of different foods; it’s not even listed in the nutrition panel on packaged foods. The Japanese food natto is rich in K-2, but smelly and inedible to most. Liver is a good source for K-2, especially if from grass fed mammals. Eggs from free-range chickens are another source. Mutton and lamb is not currently CAFO fed, to my knowledge, so should contain K-2.
Bottom line: try to include pastured animal products in your diet. If you have a concern about calcification or osteoporosis, talk to your doctor about your vitamin K-2 level. Some doctors may be unaware, but they're usually caring enough to do some research.
Please comment: Share your experience with bone health, or with osteoporosis/calcification. What works for you? Have you a source for vitamin K-2?
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.