by Julie Christensen
Your bones form the structure for your body — protecting your organs and keeping muscles secure. Healthy bone formation begins in childhood and accelerates during adolescence. By age 25, your bones are done growing. You won’t gain anymore bone density, but your lifestyle and nutrition choices determine how healthy your bones remain as you age.
Osteoporosis: A Serious Bone Disease
As you age, your bones may lose bone density and become fibrous and brittle. This serious condition is known as osteoporosis. Older adults, especially women, are prone to breaking bones, especially in the hips, wrists, and spine. These breaks heal slowly and often cause chronic pain. After such an injury, many people never fully recover.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, more than 10 million people in the U.S. currently have osteoporosis, and 34 million more may be at risk. The foundation estimates that up to 50 percent of women over age 50 will break a bone because of the condition, while about 25 percent of older men are at risk of breaking a bone.
Nutrients for Good Bone Health
The most important nutrient for good bone health is, of course, calcium, yet only half of children and adult women get enough calcium every day. So how much calcium do you need to stay healthy? The following recommendations come from a 2011 report from the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences:
- Children (ages 4-8): 1,000 mg. of calcium daily
- Youth (ages 9-18): 1,300 mg. of calcium daily
- Females (ages 19-50): 1,000 mg. of calcium daily*
- Females (age 51 and over): 1,200 mg. of calcium daily
- Males (ages 19-70): 1,000 mg. of calcium daily
- Males (age 71 and over): 1,200 mg. of calcium daily
*Pregnant women need more calcium. Consult your doctor for recommendations during pregnancy.
Calcium is found abundantly in dairy products and enriched soy products. One cup of milk, for example, has 300 mg. of calcium, while 1 cup of non-fat yogurt has almost 500 mg. One ounce of Swiss cheese has 270 mg. of calcium, while a half cup of pudding has 150 mg.
Not everyone likes dairy products and many people are lactose intolerant. If you’re on a vegan diet, you may also wonder about non-dairy calcium sources. Fortunately, many other foods are good sources of calcium.
Take dried legumes, such as black beans or navy beans, for example. One cup navy beans has 130 mg. of calcium. Soak dried beans overnight before cooking them for maximum calcium absorption. Fortified cereal may have as much as 300 mg. of calcium, but read the label and avoid high-sugar cereals.
Cooked greens have more calcium available than uncooked greens. A half cup of cooked kale has 80 mg. Try lightly steamed collard, turnip or beet greens. Broccoli is a vegetable high in calcium. Other good sources of calcium include salmon, tofu, almonds and oysters.
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones because it allows bones to absorb calcium. Vitamin D is found in eggs and fortified foods, such as milk, cereal and orange juice. Your body naturally produces vitamin D in response to sun exposure. Most young, active people get enough vitamin D simply from being outdoors. As people age, though, they manufacture less vitamin D, especially as they spend more time indoors.
Magnesium also helps maintain strong bones, although researchers aren’t exactly sure how. Foods high in magnesium include raisins, greens, tomatoes and tomato products, potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Like magnesium, bones need potassium in small amounts to remain healthy. Potassium is found in bananas, orange juice, prunes, spinach, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
Vitamin C seems to help the body absorb calcium. Find it in strawberries, tomatoes, citrus juices, and red and green peppers.
In general, if you eat a varied, whole foods diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein, your body should get the nutrients it needs to maintain healthy bones. Talk with your doctor before adding supplements.
Foods to Avoid
Of course, some foods can disrupt the absorption of calcium by your bones or may even leach calcium. Avoid or reduce your intake of the following foods:
- Salty foods may interfere with calcium absorption. Avoid chips, French fries or other heavily salted foods.
- Alcohol can take calcium from your bones so limit alcoholic drinks to one or two per week.
- Cola drinks have been shown to interfere with calcium absorption in some studies. Other studies are less clear. We do know, though, that soft drinks are a major cause of obesity in the U.S., so it’s probably best to limit them to once or twice per week.
For more information on healthy bones, visit the following sources:
- Bone Builders from the University of Arizona.
- Why Bone Health is Important from the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
- 12 Foods to Boost Bone Health from WebMD.
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.