When we think of eating for strong bones and preventing osteoporosis—a condition that affects both men and women—we often think of a big, tall glass of calcium-rich milk. (Yes, cookies too!) Milk is an excellent source of calcium, but you can get this mineral from other foods and from dietary supplements. And that’s only one of the bone-building vitamins and minerals your body needs. Although good nutrition has its biggest effect on bone health before age 30, make sure you get adequate amounts of these nutrients throughout your life to help prevent osteoporosis—and possibly slow any bone loss that may already be occurring.
This mineral is the main support for the structure and function of the skeletal system. Dairy foods such as milk and yogurt are a good source of calcium, but it's also present in white beans, dark leafy greens, salmon and sardines with bones. If you don’t get enough calcium through your diet (shoot for 1,000 to 1,200 mg per day), consider supplementing with no more than 500 mg a day for a combined total of no more than 1,300 mg of calcium from both sources. Some studies have linked calcium supplement intake to an increased risk of heart events, so they may be best taken in moderation. If you have concerns about calcium supplements, be sure to speak to your doctor.
Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in your body, and more than 60 percent of it can be found in your bones. Magnesium helps regulate calcium levels, keeping your bones stronger and healthier in the process. Most adults need 310 to 420 mg of magnesium per day, which can be found in nuts, seeds, dark green vegetables like spinach, legumes, potatoes and fortified cereals. It is also added to some calcium supplements and can be found in most multivitamins.
More and more research is pointing to vitamin C as an important player in bone strength. According to the Framingham Osteoporosis study, the higher the intake of vitamin C, the lower your chance of hip and other fractures. The link is still being explored, but it is thought that a vitamin C deficiency can lead to poor collagen growth, which results in weaker bones. Men should try to consume 90 mg of vitamin C daily, and women should aim for 75 mg. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of vitamin C, and it can be found in a wide variety of produce, from citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits to leafy greens, like spinach and Brussels sprouts.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is necessary for the absorption and utilization of calcium. While our bodies produce vitamin D in response to sunlight, an important source, those who live in warm climates need to weigh this with the need for sun protection. Luckily, diet is another source. Fatty fish, like sardines and salmon and mushrooms are natural sources of vitamin D, while other foods like milk and some brands of orange juice and yogurt are fortified with vitamin D. If you're 70 or under, you need 600 IUs a day; if you're older, aim for 800 IUs. But if like most North Americans, you're not getting enough from your diet, you may want to consider adding a supplement. The National Institutes of Health recommend taking one that provides 400 to 1,000 IUs to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, but it’s best to talk to your doctor—a simple blood test (called a 25-hydroxy vitamin D test) measures how much vitamin D is in your body and can help to determine the right dose for you.
Be on the Lookout for Bone Bandits
While we often focus on foods that build bone strength, there are in fact several foods that may weaken bones. High levels of salt in the diet can increase calcium excretion, causing bones to become more brittle. In addition, cola (though not other sodas) was associated with lower bone mineral density in men and women in the Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Caffeine can also cause an increase in calcium secretion, but the good news is that you can negate this process by making sure to get the recommended daily intake of calcium every day.
Consulting a nutritionist can help you determine if your diet is adequate, or if you should consider supplements.