A wide variety of nutrients are necessary for building and maintaining strong bones, and you might think that you need supplements to support bone health. The truth is that whether you are an omnivore or a vegan, you can get the nutrients your bones need from your diet without needing expensive dietary supplements. In fact, nutrients from food are far more synergistic because instead of delivering just one isolated synthetic nutrient, whole foods deliver many nutrients in natural combinations that aid in nutrient absorption, utilization and can have a much greater impact on bone health.
Children and adolescents build bones at a fast rate, and your bone mineral density continues to increase through your mid- to late- twenties, when you reach your peak bone mineral density. After the age of 30 years, your bone mineral density slowly decreases, with a rapid decrease in women in the first five to ten years following menopause. Individuals with low bone mineral density have a condition called osteoporosis, which literally means “porous bones.” Osteoporosis puts you at risk for hip fractures and other broken bones as you age. More than 40 million Americans have osteoporosis. Women, especially Caucasians and Asians, are at highest risk for osteoporosis, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Let’s look at what we can do to prevent osteoporosis in our own lives.
Calcium’s Role in Healthy Bones
Most people correctly associate calcium with strong bones. Calcium is an essential mineral for bone health because bone is composed of calcium along with other minerals. Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese are rich in calcium and have been touted as calcium rich sources for years but dairy is really not your best sources of calcium. Dairy can be problematic because of hidden sugars; additives, preservatives and issues with cows fed antibiotics, growth hormones and genetically engineered corn. Dairy can be mucus producing and cause problems for for a lot of people. The good news is there are other sources that are actually higher in calcium than dairy, which are more nutrient dense choices. Good news for individuals who are lactose intolerant or choose not to consume dairy.
Sources of Calcium
You can meet your requirements by eating three to four servings of the following high-calcium foods each day
1 can salmon sockeye canned with bone – 882 mg
1 ounce dried smelt – 448 mg
1 can of sardines, bone in – 351mg
1 cup raw winged beans – 801mg
1 cup raw white beans – 485 mg
1 cup raw kidney beans – 359 mg
1 cup dry-roasted almonds – 457 mg
1 ounce sesame seeds – 277 mg
1 cup cultured buttermilk – roughly 300 mg
1 cup yogurt – roughly 290 mg
1 cup kefir – roughly 267 mg
1 ounce agar (seaweed) – 175 mg
1 cup kale – 205 mg
1 cup turnip greens -104 mg
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1000 milligrams (mg)/day for adults 19 and older. The upper limit (UL) the most calcium you should consume per day, is 2,500md/day. As we age, absorption declines and this should be increased.
Adults who get too much calcium from supplements may develop kidney stones or atherosclerosis, which is a hardening of the arteries, another reason why it is best to get your calcium from food sources whenever possible.
Vitamin D is not actually in your bones, but you need this essential nutrient for strong bones because it helps your body use calcium properly. Vitamin D increases the amount of calcium that you absorb from food and helps your body incorporate it into strong bones. Your skin can synthesize some vitamin D when you are outside in direct sunlight, but most people also need vitamin D from their diets to have enough to support strong bones. Older adults and individuals who live in northern climates and do not get much exposure to the sun during winter are at higher risk for vitamin D and calcium deficiency because their skin does not make enough vitamin D.
The RDA for vitamin D is 600 international units (IU) for everyone aged 1 to 70
800 IU for those over age 70.
UL 4,000 IU/day for children 9 years and older, adults, and pregnant andbreast-feeding teens and women.
Many practitioners feel this is too low and that we should receive more. The only danger in supplemental vitamin D is that it ends up stored when adequate levels are reached, increasing the risk of toxicity. Vitamin D toxicity almost always occurs from taking too many supplements and vitamin D toxicity from foods is very difficult. Confusion and disorientation, kidney stones or kidney damage, nausea, vomiting, constipation, poor appetite and weakness canalso be symptoms of too much supplemental vitamin D.
Sources of Vitamin D
To give you an idea of how much vitamin D can be found in foods here is a list:
1 slice braised liver 31,714 IU
1-tablespoon cod liver oil 13,600
3 oz smoked Chinook salmon 583 IU
1 ½ fillet of sockeye salmon 815 IU
3 oz rainbow trout 645
½ fillet Atlantic or pacific halibut 367 IU
1 Hard-boiled egg 44IU
You will soon notice that liver; cod liver oil, salmon and eggs are powerful sources of all fat-soluble vitamins. If you are a vegetarian the good news is, it is really easy to get adequate amounts of vitamin D simply by being outside and exposing yourself to wonderful sunshine. The human skin produces approximately 10,000 IU of vitamin D in response to 10-30 minutes of summer sun exposure. That’s over 16 times your daily requirements! Many studies now show that a little bit of sun exposure without sunscreen each day is a safe way to obtain enough vitamin D. Most people can tolerate 10-30 minutes without burning and is not problematic. Look up vitamin D in our nutrition section for more information on vitamin D and sunshine.
Phosphorus is important for bone health; more than 80 percent of all the phosphorus in your body is in your bones.
Phosphorus is added to many processed foods and soft drinks. When combined with sulfuric acid, it becomes phosphoric acid. This, along with carbon dioxide, gives soft drinks their fizz and syrupy consistency. Consumption of these beverages is associated with demineralization of bones, especially during childhood and adolescence. This could be because when phosphate levels are high and calcium levels are low, calcium is pulled out of the bones. Phosphoric acid is different from naturally occurring phosphorus, and is best avoided.
Sources of Phosphorus
Grain is the All-Star food here because it contains phytic acid, which is the storage form of phosphorus. A good overnight soak will ensure this nutrient is released from storage for use in the body. When the grains are not soaked, phytic acid will bind to minerals and prevent absorption so soaking is very important.
Animal sources: liver, steak, sardines, salmon, chicken, and eggs
1 can sardines – 451 mg
3.5 ounce chicken livers – 442 mg
3 ounce Chinook salmon – 315 mg
Plant sources: grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
1 cup uncooked amaranth – 1075 mg
1 cup uncooked quinoa – 779 mg
1 cup uncooked teff – 828 mg
1 cup lentils – 866 mg
1 cup great northern beans – 818 mg
1 cup yardlong beans – 933 mg
1 cup Brazil nuts – 964 mg
1 cup black walnuts – 641 mg
1 ounce pumpkin seeds – 329 mg
1 ounce sunflower seeds – 324 mg
½ cup sesame seeds – 453 mg
RDA – Adults 19 years and older 700 mg/day, upper limit (UL) – 9 years and older 4000 mg/day
Other valuable Nutrients
Vitamin C is necessary for forming the supporting structures of your bones, and a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is a great way to meet your needs.
Potassium helps your body regulate calcium levels, and it is in fruits, vegetables, fish, beans and dairy products.
Magnesium helps your body increase bone mineral density, and you can get it from nuts, seeds, fruit, grains, fish and dairy products
Vitamin K is named after its role in blood clotting, but it is necessary for maintaining your bone mineral density. Deficiency is rare because it is in a variety of foods, including green leafy vegetables, fruit and vegetable oils.
A Healthy Diet Helps Your Bones Stay Strong
Meeting your nutrient requirements is necessary for bone health, but limiting your intake of unhealthy foods is important too. A balanced diet heavy in vegetables with a moderate amount of quality proteins and little bit of unrefined fat is ideal. If you think of yourself as a hunter or gatherer as you peruse the grocery aisle, it will help you to make better decisions. Primitive cultures seldom had problems with unhealthy bones. After all, you can’t hunt a soda or gather a bag of chips.
Foods to Avoid
Sodium- A high-sodium diet can lower your bone mineral density and increase your risk for osteoporosis. Sodium is in processed and prepared foods, such as canned soups, fast foods, condiments and sauces.
Carbonated Beverages- Phosphoric acid is different from naturally occurring phosphorus, and is commonly used for rust removal. Soft drinks (which, remember, contain phosphoric acid) have absolutely no nutritional value and if phosphoric acid can remove rust from nails, you can’t help but wonder what it does to your body. The caffeine in certain soft drinks can also play a role in bone de-mineralization by interfering with calcium absorption. If you’re addicted to soft drinks, next time you pop open a can of your favorite sugary “treat,” look at the can and say hello to the possibility of osteoporosis, kidney stones, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. You can also say goodbye to your sex drive if it is a diet soda containing aspartame (NutraSweet), an artificial sweetener linked to impotence and loss of sex drive/libido. Suffice it to say phosphorus should be consumed from whole foods, not processed foods containing unbalanced, unnatural substances.
Coffee- Coffee/caffeine increases excretion of calcium from the body.
Alcohol- Alcohol inhibits calcium absorption; it is best avoided for individuals with low calcium levels.
Sugar- should also be avoided as it disturbs calcium metabolism.
“Drink your milk.” May be the slogan of the decade but what your mother may not have known is that you don’t have to drink milk to grow strong and healthy. Omnivores and vegans alike can meet nutritional needs without taking dietary supplements by choosing wisely foods rich in nutrients that support bone health, such as fish, legumes, whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
NIH Osteoporosis and RelatedBone Diseases National Resource Center. What is Osteoporosis? Fast Facts: AnEasy-to-Read Series of Publications for the Public. Available at http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bone/Osteoporosis/osteoporosis_ff.asp.Accessed May 31, 2012.
Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. Calcium.Available at http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/minerals/calcium/.Accessed May 31, 2012.
Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. Vitamin D.Available at http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/vitamins/vitaminD/.Accessed May 31, 2012.
Nieves, JW. Osteoporosis: the role of micronutrients. American Journalof Clinical Nutrition. 81;5:1232S-1239S.