Building Healthy Bones – Part I

Women, in particular, are hearing more and more these days about bone health: how to encourage it, how to maintain it, and how to regain it if, in the aging process, after age 30 or so, there has been significant bone loss.

I fall into that category. I used to be 5’6 ½” and now have to stretch to reach 5’4” –the effect of enough bone loss to qualify as osteopenic. Thus, for the last few years, I have been concentrating my own diet and lifestyle around care for my bones.

Diet and exercise are two main components in maintaining good health in any situation, and most assuredly when it comes to bone health. Building and keeping healthy bones are extremely important at any age, and especially so after age 30 when we reach our peak bone mass.

Beginning with diet, here are some ways to build and maintain healthy bones.

– Eat Lots of Vegetables

They are the best friend of bones. They are a fine source of vitamin C, which stimulates the production of bone-forming cells, and may also protect those cells from damage.

Vegetables also seem to increase bone mineral density, which is a measurement of the amount of calcium and other minerals found in bones.  Both osteopenia (low bone mass) and osteoporosis (brittle bones) are conditions characterized by low bone density.

A high intake of green and yellow vegetables, especially dark leafy greens, has been linked to increased bone mineralization during childhood and the maintenance of bone mass in young adults. Eating lots of vegetables has also been found to benefit older women.

– Consume Adequate Protein

Bone is composed of about 50% protein. Researchers have reported that low protein intake decreases calcium absorption and may also affect rates of bone formation and breakdown. However, studies have also shown that high-protein diets can leach calcium from bones in order to counteract increased acidity in the blood caused by meat and dairy products.

What to make of all this? Eat plenty of protein, but get lots of it from plant sources – vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.

– Eat High-Mineral Foods Throughout the Day

Calcium is the most important mineral for bone health, and is the main mineral found in bones.  In our bodies, old bone cells are constantly broken down and replaced by new ones. Thus, it is important to consume calcium daily to protect bone structure and strength. While the recommended daily intake for calcium is 1000 mg per day, teens and older women need 1300 mg per day.

Interestingly, in a meal containing more than 500 mg of calcium, much less of it will be absorbed than a lesser amount was ingested. Therefore, it’s best to spread calcium intake out throughout the day, including at least one calcium-rich food at each meal.

Magnesium is another mineral important for building and maintain healthy bones. It plays a key role in converting vitamin D into the active form that promotes calcium absorption. One observational study of over 73,000 women found that those who consumed 400 mg of magnesium per day tended to have 2-3% higher bone density than women who consumed half this amount daily.

Zinc is a trace mineral needed in very small amounts, but needed nonetheless. It helps to make up the mineral portion of bones, promotes the formation of bone-building cells , and prevents the excessive breakdown of bone.

Foods that include all of these minerals include, but are not limited to almonds, avocados, beans, berries, nuts (especially Brazils and hazel), broccoli, carob, carrots, cauliflower, celery, figs, mushrooms, oranges, leafy green vegetables, miso, peaches, plums seaweeds, tomatoes, sweet potatoes,  and seeds, (especially pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower), and more

It is also best to get these minerals primarily from whole, rich, natural food sources rather than to rely on supplements, even though they might be needed in some cases.

– Consume Foods High in Omega-3 Fats

They are well-known for their anti-inflammatory effects, and have also been shown to help protect against bone loss during the aging process. It is also important to make sure the balance of omega-6 fats doesn’t overwhelm the amount of omega-3s.  A ratio of 4:1 or lower is best. Most studies have looked at the benefits of long-chain omega-3 fats found in fatty fish. However, one study found that omega-3 plant sources helped decrease bone breakdown and increase bone formation.  Those sources include chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts.

-Get Plenty of Vitamin D and Vitamin K.

Vitamin D is very helpful in helping the body absorb calcium, along with some other roles in bone health which help to protect against osteopenia, osteoporosis, and other bone diseases.

Sadly, vitamin D deficiency is very common, affecting about one billion people worldwide.

It is possible to get enough vitamin D through sun exposure and some food sources such as fatty fish, liver, and cheese. However, many people need to supplement with up to 2000 IU of vitamin D daily to maintain optimal levels.

Vitamin K2 supports bone health by modifying a protein (osteocalcin), so that it can bind to minerals in bones and help prevent the loss of calcium from them. K@ is found in fermented foods like sauerkraut, and from some fermented soy products such as natto, miso, and tempeh.

– Avoid Very Low-Calorie Diets

Dropping calories too low is never a good idea. It slows down metabolism, creates rebound hunger and muscle loss, and can be harmful to bone health.

Studies have shown that diets providing fewer than 1000 calories per day can lead to lower bone density in normal-weight, overweight, or obese individuals.

To illustrate the point, one study of obese women who consumed 925 calories per day for four months experienced a significant loss of bone density from their hip and upper thigh region, regardless of whether they performed resistance training. (I’ll have more about resistance training in my next newsletter/blog.)

The best plan is to follow a well-balanced diet that provides at least 1200 calories a day and includes of plenty of protein and foods rich in vitamins and minerals that support bone health.

– Maintain a Healthy, Stable Weight

Being underweight increases the risk of osteopenia and osteoporosis, especially in the case of postmenopausal women who have lost the bone-protective effects of estrogen. Low body weight is the main factor contributing to reduced bone density and bone loss in this age group.

On the other hand, some studies suggest that being obese can impair bone quality and increase the risk of fractures due to the stress of excess weight.

Overall, repeatedly losing and regaining weight appears particularly detrimental to bone health, as well as losing a large amount of weight in a short time. Maintaining a stable normal or slightly higher than normal weight is the best bet when it comes to protecting bone health.

Bone health is important in all stages in life. However, having strong bones is something people tend to take for granted, until they are older and are told that they have significant bone loss.

The good news is that there are many nutrition and lifestyle habits that can help build and maintain strong bones – and it’s never too early to start giving bones the attention they deserve.

More good news is that, even when there has been bone loss, it can be recovered with a good diet and adequate exercise.

Be sure to see my next newsletter/blog, Part II of this subject, which will address the place of exercise in this discussion – not only exercise, but the types that are most beneficial for bone health.

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