Nutrition for healthy bones is important knowledge to know. The function of the bones is multi-faceted. From providing structure and support and protecting our organs to acting as a mineral storage, our bones do a lot. Good nutrition throughout life plays a vital role in building strong and healthy bones. Taking steps to ensure you, and those you love, are getting bone-building nutrients during childhood and adolescence, as well as the adult years, will help to maintain bone density and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis later in life.

Bone is a dynamic living tissue that is able to rebuild and replenish itself. When you are young, your body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone. As an adult, although bone remodeling continues, you begin to break down bone cells faster than you generate new ones.

Osteoporosis, defined as a chronic progressive disease characterized by a deterioration of bone tissue, occurs when the old bone cells are being broken down faster than they are being replaced. Osteoporosis results in bones that are weak and fragile, leaving them at an increased risk for fractures. Maximizing bone accumulation during the adolescent years, known as peak bone mass, is the first crucial step to ensuring strong bones later in life.

What is peak bone mass?

Peak bone mass refers to the greatest mass, strength, and density your bones genetically can accumulate. You can think of bone-building as if one is climbing a peak during adolescence, reaches the peak in early adulthood, and then starts to decline later in life. By age 18, 90% of peak bone mass has been achieved and most young women and men reach their maximum bone density by their late 20s. Although genetics determine 60 – 80% of peak bone mass, lifestyle choices, including diet and physical activity, are also predictors of bone accumulation during growth.

How does nutrition play a part in healthy bones?

Nutrition is essential to achieving peak bone mass. Many studies addressing nutrition and bone health in children have concluded that inadequate nutrition, particularly insufficient intake of calcium and vitamin D, during growth may negatively affect peak bone mass. It has been shown that achieving peak bone mass during the adolescent years could significantly delay the onset of osteoporosis by 13 years, reducing the risk of osteoporotic fractures later in life. By the age of 40, we all slowly begin to lose bone mass. However, as with adolescents aiming to achieve peak bone mass, quality nutrition, and regular exercise also help adults avoid the severe bone loss that leads to osteoporosis.

Why is calcium so important to healthy bones?

The health and strength of our bones rely on a balanced diet that provides a steady stream of many key nutrients, most importantly, calcium and vitamin D. Calcium has always been known as one of the vital nutrients for building strong bones

Calcium is important for muscle contraction, heartbeat regulation, nerve impulse transmission, regulation of blood pressure, and immune system function. 99% of calcium is stored in our bones, and unfortunately, when you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, the body will pull calcium from the bones to support these other functions. Without adequate calcium, bones become weak and fragile.

We all are familiar with calcium in dairy but it’s important to incorporate other forms of calcium, such as:

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Nuts and seeds

It also helps if you pair calcium-rich foods with foods high in vitamin D, such as egg yolks, shiitake mushrooms, and fish (specifically salmon, mackerel, sardines, and canned tuna), as it helps the absorption of calcium from your food.

The lesser-known Vitamin K and its importance

Low levels of vitamin K are also emerging as a dietary risk factor for osteoporosis. Vitamin K, and more specifically vitamin K2, is necessary to ensure that calcium gets absorbed into the bones and prevents it from being deposited in other areas of the body, such as organs, joint spaces, and arteries. Dietary sources of K2 are primarily found in fermented foods such as Natto, cheeses such as Brie and Gouda, meat, poultry, and eggs.

Animal protein significantly increases calcium absorption resulting in no adverse effects on calcium balance. Animal proteins also provide many important bone growth factors that aid in bone mineralization.

Many plants provide proteins, too, and are also an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, fibers, and antioxidants that are essential to bones. For optimal bone health, add variety to your diet with plant-based proteins (beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, natural soy) and high-quality animal proteins (eggs, salmon, lean meats). This will ensure you get all the valuable nutrients needed to build a strong body. Not only nutrient deficiency but also poor dietary choices can have a negative impact on bone health.

Lay low on sugar

Diets high in refined sugar have been shown to impair bone growth and mechanical strength. Drinking carbonated soft drinks containing phosphates and coloring has been shown to interfere with calcium metabolism. It is also well known that salt, especially abundant in processed foods, increases the excretion of calcium through the urine. Excessive caffeine, such as four or more cups of coffee a day, can result in loss of calcium and magnesium, predisposing you to higher risk of fractures.

Alcohol also has a negative effect on bone health for several reasons. It alters bone formation and remodeling, interferes with calcium balance, causes disruption in hormones, which can lead to irregular menstrual cycles in women and decreased testosterone in men, and can elevate cortisol levels, leading to bone breakdown. To maintain healthy bones, limit your alcohol to one or two drinks a day. Your lifestyle choices also affect your bone health.

Say No to smoking

By far, the biggest risk factor for osteoporosis is smoking. Smoking a pack of cigarettes a day increases your risk of osteoporosis by 60%. It has been shown that adolescents that smoke fail to achieve peak bone mass.

Keeping your bones healthy throughout your life is crucial to avoiding the onset of osteoporosis and proper nutrition is key to keeping your skeleton strong.