6 Surprising Bone Builders

By Natasha Persaud

Your bones do such a good job supporting your every move, it's easy to take them for granted. But your skeleton is a living tissue in constant need of replenishment: As early as age 25, you can start to lose more bone than you build, leading to progressively thinner, weaker bones as you grow older and raising your risk for osteoporosis (literally "porous bone") or debilitating fractures and breaks.

Strong Bones Image - Masterfile

A balanced diet rich in fresh, whole foods is the foundation for good bone health, says Jeri Nieves, Ph.D., a health-care professional affiliated with the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) and an associate professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. Here, Nieves shares 6 weapons against bone loss:

1. Get your share of lean protein—but not too much.

Protein aids the production of collagen fibers that provide a framework for bones, and adequate protein intake is important for bone health. In fact, according to several large studies, older adults over age 80 with low protein intake had more rapid bone loss and a higher risk of fractures than those with sufficient protein.

Eat: About 5 ounces of lean protein (skinless poultry, fish, beans, low-fat or fat-free-dairy foods, nuts and seeds) per day for women, 5 1/2 for men. (A serving of chicken or fish the size of a deck of cards is about 2 to 3 ounces.)

Avoid: Red meat, poultry skin, lard, butter, cream and tropical oils (saturated fat can thin bones).

Caution: If you are on a low-carb, high-protein weight-loss program, your body may leach calcium from your bones, causing them to weaken. The key: keep a good balance and make sure you consume enough calcium.

2. Focus on fruits, and vary your veggies.

Several studies have linked high intakes of fruits and vegetables with better bone health. We're still learning how produce helps protect your skeleton: "Some evidence suggests fruits and vegetables create an environment that reduces calcium loss from bone,” explains Nieves. "Or, it may be that plant phenols and flavonoids provide compounds that bolster bone. Produce is also rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which can help fortify bones and maintain the muscles that support them."

Eat: At least 1 1/2 cups of fruits and 2 cups of vegetables every day; more is even better. Choose a rainbow of produce, including greens, reds, oranges, blues and yellows. Satisfying your taste buds isn't the only motivation. Each kind of fruit and vegetable offers its own particular concentration and mix of nutrients, according to Nieves.

3. Eat calcium-rich foods.

When your diet doesn't contain enough calcium for your body's needs, calcium is withdrawn from your bones. Studies show that low calcium intake is associated with low bone density, bone loss and broken bones.

Eat: Low- or non-fat dairy products (such as milk and yogurt), canned salmon and sardines (eat the soft bones!), dark green leafy greens, broccoli, dried figs and nuts. (Note: Spinach, rhubarb and beet greens provide less calcium because a substance called oxalate gets in the way of absorption). To absorb calcium, you also need vitamin D. Few foods other than fish and liver naturally contain vitamin D, so look for vitamin D fortified foods (like milk and orange juice) and ask your doctor if you need a daily supplement.

How much do you need? According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, if you're under age 50, get a total of 1,000 mg of calcium from foods and supplements, if needed. Along with it, get 400 to 800 IU of vitamin D daily. If you're over 50, get 1,200 mg of calcium and 800 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D. (Your body can absorb about 500 to 600 mg of calcium at one time, so spread out your calcium intake. Have a calcium-rich food at each meal or as a snack. For example, have a glass of calcium-fortified orange juice with breakfast, eat yogurt at snacktime, and drink a glass of milk before bedtime.)

4. Get a move on!

Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise each day, says Nieves; as the 2005 Dietary Guidelines suggest. Weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises helped you build bones in your younger years. If you're over 30, the right physical activity will help you maintain bone strength. A plus: A new study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine of over 10,000 adults suggests that men and women who get regular aerobic exercise will experience fewer falls while walking. (And consider balance exercises such as Tai Chi, which may reduce your chances of falling and fracturing a bone.)

If you can't do high-impact weight-bearing activities such as running, try lower-impact exercises, such as walking, stair climbing (step machines), low-impact aerobics and elliptical training. For muscle strengthening, exercise with free weights or a resistance band.

Eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet and getting regular exercise will go a long way toward keeping your bones in tip top condition. And that can mean more bike rides and carefree strolls along the boardwalk in the years ahead.

5. Get your vitamins and minerals.

Fruits and vegetables contain nutrients that research suggests are beneficial for bones. Here's a short list from the National Osteoporosis Foundation of nutrients you should get in addition to calcium:

  • Magnesium: spinach, beet greens, okra, tomato products, artichokes, plantains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, collard greens and raisins
  • Potassium: tomato products, raisins, potatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, papaya, oranges, orange juice, bananas, plantains and prunes
  • Vitamin C: red peppers, green peppers, oranges, grapefruits, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, papaya and pineapples
  • Vitamin K: certain dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, spinach, mustard greens, turnip greens and Brussels sprouts.

6. Kick the salt habit.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most of us—a whopping 70 percent of Americans—are over the 2,300 mg or less limit when it comes to sodium. And that could be bad for bones.

Where is all that extra sodium coming from? Surprisingly, it's not the salt shaker. Sodium is used both as a flavoring and a preservative in many meals and foods we eat.

To reduce your intake:

  • Eat fewer takeout and restaurant meals, and cook with less salt at home.
  • Avoid high-sodium deli foods, especially smoked meats.
  • Limit canned vegetables, frozen meals, condiments (e.g., salad dressings, catsup, mustard, etc.), tomato sauce and other packaged foods, since these products tend to contain excess sodium.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 17 Aug 2010

Last Modified: 05 Feb 2015