By EatingWell Editors
Ten million Americans over the age of 50 have osteoporosis, a disease characterized by porous, frail bones and increased risk of fractures. An additional 44 million adults in America have thinning bones that put them in danger of developing the disease. While there are some risk factors for osteoporosis that you just can’t control (your genes, gender and your age are three), here’s the good news: everyone can make lifestyle changes that benefit bones—at any age. Here are tips for improving your bone health, from EatingWell’s nutrition experts.
Ninety-nine percent of the calcium in your body is stored in your bones and teeth, keeping them strong; the other 1 percent circulates (via your blood) through the body and participates in important functions, including muscle contractions, blood clotting and hormone secretion. These reactions are necessary for life, so if your diet is low in calcium, your body draws the mineral from “banked” stores in your bones, to keep blood calcium levels normal. Over time, all this borrowing makes bones brittle. Indeed, lots of Americans aren’t getting enough calcium. Research suggests that many women consume daily less than half of the 1,000 to 1,300 mg of calcium recommended to build and maintain healthy bones. Dairy foods are the best sources of calcium. A cup of milk or yogurt supplies about 300 mg of calcium—so eating three (or four) servings of dairy will provide the recommended daily intake. Some green leafy vegetables, such as kale, are also good sources. Calcium-fortified juices and soymilks supply significant amounts of the mineral too. If you don’t get enough calcium from foods, you may need to take a calcium supplement.
Vitamin D is to calcium what PayPal is to eBay: you need vitamin D to “lock in” calcium from food and get it into your bones. Vitamin D comes from two sources: the sun (UV light interacts with chemicals in your skin to produce it) and foods, including fortified dairy products, egg yolks, salmon, tuna and liver. Health experts recommend a daily intake between 200 and 800 IU of vitamin D per day. Some experts think the daily value is too low (see The Vitamin D Debate) and recommend 1000 IU—which generally requires taking a supplement since only a handful of foods are natural sources of vitamin D [fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel; egg yolks supply a little] and fortified milk provides only 100 IU of D per cup.
Anything that gets your blood pumping is good for your heart and overall health, but weight-bearing physical activities, such as walking, jogging, lifting weights and playing racquet sports, are best for keeping bones strong. When you jump, run or lift a weight, it puts pressure on your bones, which sends signals to build new cells that, ultimately, strengthen your skeleton.
Some research suggests that older people who consume more fruits and vegetables have denser bones than those who eat less. One reason for this may be that most fruits and vegetables provide good amounts of potassium and many—particularly leafy greens—contain magnesium and vitamin K too. Emerging research suggests that all three of these nutrients may be important for maintaining healthy bones.
Eating a diet that’s high in sodium and relatively low in potassium-rich foods like fruits and vegetables causes you to excrete excess amounts of calcium, which can have a negative impact on bones. Keep your daily intake of sodium to less than 2,300 mg per day.
Alcohol interferes with the absorption and use of calcium and vitamin D, and science suggests that heavy alcohol intake reduces bone mass, increasing your risk for broken bones.
Crash dieting can wreak havoc on bones. If you’re trying to lose weight, do so gradually and healthfully, making sure to consume enough calcium and get adequate exercise. (Need help? Check out our Weight Loss & Diet Plans.) Beware: Dipping into an “underweight” range can disrupt reproductive hormones, including estrogen, that are critical to keeping bones strong. Our Essential Weight-Loss Tools can help you achieve a healthy diet successfully.
If you don’t already have a million and one reasons to kick the tobacco habit, here are two more: Research shows that smoking reduces calcium absorption. It also reduces bone mass, upping your chance of fractures.