A patient came in the other day and told me her mother had been diagnosed with osteoporosis. She wanted to know if it was hereditary and if she were at risk for it too. As I told her, in general, if you’re over 50, female, menopausal, of slight build and weight, you are in the highest risk group for osteoporosis.
However, elderly men and teenagers are also at risk for it as well as men over age 40 who consume too much alcohol and smoke. Anyone whose diet is deficient in calcium and other bone building minerals can also develop osteoporosis. In short, just about anyone can be at risk for osteoporosis! Even though it’s one of those issues associated with getting older, you may be surprised to know that even people in their 20’s can get osteoporosis!
The good news, though, is that osteoporosis can be prevented with the right foods, exercise, some lifestyle changes. Let’s not forget calcium and Vitamin D3, as well as a few other important vitamins and minerals that are our bones best friends. First, let me explain to you a little about what osteoporosis is, and then I’ll tell you about some foods that can tweak your diet in favor of your bones.
What Is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis is a decrease in the strength and thickness of bone, which results in fragile or brittle bones that are prone to fracture. Any bones of the body can become affected by this condition, but most frequently the hips, spine, wrists and ribs are the most common bones to fracture.
Osteoporosis is diagnosed by bone density testing which involves lying on a table while a scanner slowly moves over your entire body measuring the thickness of your bones.
As I mentioned above, anyone at any age can be diagnosed with osteoporosis. The real culprits are lack of calcium, protein and collagen in the diet. With that in mind, you can prevent osteoporosis if you get the optimum levels of these bone building/strengthening substances in your diet.
What You Should Eat to Prevent Osteoporosis
As I tell my patients, a healthy, nutritional diet is the best thing you can do for your health, especially your bones. This nutrition needs to start in childhood when bones are forming and growing and should continue all the way through old age. Below is a list of the most important nutrients, and foods that contain them that are crucial to the growth and maintenance of strong bones:
- Calcium – First and foremost, bones need calcium and a lot of it. Your diet should include high calcium sources a day, whether it comes from dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt) or non-dairy sources. Contrary to widespread beliefs about dairy and bone health, some researchers say that dairy may actually not be the best source of calcium as it is also high in phosphorus, which can actually leech calcium from bones! Since bones are made up of both calcium and phosphorus, there should be a delicate balance of both minerals.
However, I’d have to see more conclusive research on this issue to change my mind about dairy calcium and bone health. In the meantime, there are other non-dairy, high sources of calcium. These include almond and soy milks which have almost as much calcium as cow’s milk, legumes (pinto beans, black-eyed peas, soybeans), vegetables (collard, turnip and mustard greens, kale, spinach), calcium fortified orange juice, canned sardines, apricots, figs.
- Vitamin C – Vitamin C helps build collagen, the “matrix” of bones, which maintains strong bone density. Recent research has shown that elderly men have reduced bone loss by adding 1,000 mg of Vitamin C to their diets a day. You can get Vitamin C from either citrus fruits, or vegetables (bok choy, tomatoes, red cabbage, chili peppers, guava). Think of your favorite veggie pizza, mozzarella cheese/tomato sauce pizza topped with chili peppers, spinach, a little red cabbage, and whatever else you can think of. High in calcium and Vitamin C!
- Vitamin D3 – Insufficient Vitamin D3 also contributes to bone density loss. In fact, recent research has shown that most people are deficient in D3. A blood test can measure your Vitamin D levels. Working inside office buildings all day, most of us do not get in the high noon sunshine enough to manufacture Vitamin D ourselves. Without enough Vitamin D, calcium cannot be absorbed properly from the intestines to build bones. The best food sources of D3 are salmon, tuna, and mackerel. It may be wise to supplement D3 in the diet if you do not get in the sun at least 15 minutes a day.
- Magnesium – Your bones also need magnesium as a support mineral to help keep bones strong. The best food sources of magnesium are the same ones that contain a lot of calcium, so you get 2 minerals in one food when you eat legumes, greens, and spinach!
- Protein – Your body needs adequate protein (about 0.3-0.5 grams per lb of body weight) to build and repair all its tissues and bones and keep muscles strong. However, too much animal protein (like beef and pork) in your diet can actually leech calcium from your bones as it contains a lot of phosphorus. Try to balance your protein sources between animal and vegetable (legumes like all beans, peas; grains like quinoa, amaranth) to avoid too much phosphorus in your diet.
- Zinc – Recent research has shown that adding zinc supplements may help prevent or treat osteoporosis, as zinc has been found to stimulate bone formation and stops bone loss in animals.
What Else Can You Do To Prevent Osteoporosis?
In addition to powering up their nutrition, I tell my patients that one of the best things they can do to prevent osteoporosis is to do weight-bearing exercise such as lifting weights at the gym, or running or walking on pavement. This type of exercise stimulates bones to grow and become dense to accommodate the body performing the task. Exercise also improves balance and flexibility and aids in preventing falls, which are the number one cause of fractures in people over 50.
Some other important things you can do to minimize your chance of getting osteoporosis include:
- Stop smoking
- Limit caffeine to 3 cups a day
- Limit alcohol intake to no more than a few drinks per week
- Ask your doctor about offsetting the bone-effects of certain medications like thyroid hormones, steroids, and diuretics.
Preventing osteoporosis is the best way to ensure that you will not ever get it. Your body builds bone mass until about the age of 30, so the best way to protect against osteoporosis later in life is to build good bones early in life. However, it’s never too late to strengthen your bones to prevent further density loss and fractures! By ramping up your nutrition with calcium, Vitamin C and D rich foods, you can be sure that your getting enough of the bone-building nutrients you need to keep you healthy and active throughout your entire life!
Mark Bromson, M.D.