Many of us grew up being told to drink our milk. That’s because milk contains calcium, one of the key building blocks for strong bones. But you shouldn’t stop nourishing your bones once you’re grown. Nutrition continues to play a key role in helping to build and maintain strong bones throughout life.
“Vitamin D, magnesium and phosphorous are also key nutrients that help stabilize our bones and protect them from injury and damage,” says Allegra Picano, RDN, a registered dietitian in the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at Henry Ford Health. “You can get these nutrients through the foods you eat, supporting your bone health at every age.”
Bone Health Basics
Our bones support our bodies. They enable us to move and protect our brain, heart and other organs from damage. They’re also always changing.
Our bodies are continually making new bone and breaking down old bone. When we’re young, our bodies make new bone at a faster rate than old bone dissolves. By age 30, we reach our peak bone mass, which means our bones are at their maximum density and strength.
Nutrients, especially calcium and vitamin D, take center stage in supporting bone health during childhood. These nutrients should continue to play a starring role, helping your bones stay strong. Proper nutrition can also reduce the risk for osteoporosis, a condition in which bones become brittle and fragile, breaking with even small amounts of stress.
What Foods Support Bone Health?
“What you eat each day can have an impact on the strength and structure of your bones. It can also affect your ability to move through daily life,” says Picano. She recommends keeping your bones healthy with a balanced diet that includes:
- Dairy products: Milk, cheese and yogurt are great sources of calcium. Many dairy products are also fortified with vitamin D, which helps you absorb the calcium you need to maintain strong bones.
- Dark chocolate: Need an excuse to eat a sweet treat? It turns out that dark chocolate is a source of magnesium, which works along with phosphorous to regulate the amount of calcium absorbed in the bones. Enjoy moderate amounts of dark chocolate, while limiting your overall sugar consumption.
- Fatty fish: Sunlight is a good source of vitamin D. But in a colder climate like Michigan, getting vitamin D from the sun can be a challenge. Turn to fatty fish like salmon or mackerel for your vitamin D nutrients. Sardines and tuna are also sources of calcium.
- Green leafy vegetables: Just like Popeye, you can benefit from eating spinach. Add broccoli, kale and collard greens to your diet as well. These vegetables all contain calcium and magnesium to support bone health.
- Nuts and seeds: Top off your salad with almonds and walnuts, which are sources of magnesium. Sprinkle chia or poppy seeds into your favorite recipes to add even more calcium to your diet.
- Whole-grains: In addition to providing fiber, whole-grain breads and pasta, and brown rice are also sources of magnesium and phosphorous. Not only will whole grains help you manage your weight and stay full, but they also support your bone health.
What About Supplements?
“While we can get most nutrients to support bone health from the food we eat, vitamin supplements may also be helpful,” says Picano. “For example, many adults are deficient in vitamin D and can benefit from a supplement to support calcium absorption.”
People with eating disorders or who take certain medications, such as steroids, may also be at risk for losing bone mass. Picano recommends consulting with your doctor or a dietitian before taking any supplements. A blood test can reveal the level of nutrients in your body.
Don’t Forget Exercise And Healthy Habits
Nutrition is only one component of bone health. Along with eating a healthy diet, Picano recommends adding these strategies to maintain your bone strength:
- Include weight-bearing exercise: Walking, jogging and strength training all boost bone health. Any weight-bearing exercise can help you maintain your bone density and reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis.
- Stop smoking: In addition to increasing your risk for conditions such as lung cancer and heart disease, nicotine can slow the production of cells that create bone in the body. Smoking can also interfere with your body’s ability to absorb calcium, which is critical for maintaining bone strength.
- Limit alcohol: Excess alcohol can destroy cells that make new bone, slowing the bone renewal process. Alcohol can also increase parathyroid hormone, which triggers a loss of calcium and a decrease in overall bone mass and strength.
“While we reach our peak bone strength by age 30, it is never too late to take steps to strengthen your bones. Combine a balanced diet with exercise and healthy lifestyle habits to ensure that you can be active throughout your life,” says Picano.
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Allegra Picano is a registered dietitian nutritionist for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.