According to the Center for Disease Control, over 50 percent of women over 50 years of age have low bone mass at either the femur neck or lumbar spine. This low bone density is a precursor for osteoporosis, a skeletal disorder where the bones are extremely weak and likely to fracture. It’s safe to say that we'd all love to avoid that, and bolstering the bones is the way to do so.
- Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder and director of Real Nutrition
If your mom constantly badgered you to eat yogurt for the calcium content (or was that just mine?), she was onto something. But it’s time to update the conventional knowledge, because bone health through nutrition goes well beyond the milk carton. When it comes to building and maintaining bone health, three main micronutrients take the brunt of the responsibility—calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium—says Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder of Real Nutrition. Here, she fills us in on these three nutrients for bone health and shares how you can get in your daily dose by simply eating more of some of your favorite foods.
One last PSA before we dive in: Don’t forget that there are other factors that help improve and maintain bone health, including regular physical activity (especially resistance training though walking can also improve bone density), avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol, and maintaining a nutrient-dense meal regime. According to Shapiro, this is especially true for women going through menopause when bone loss can accelerate.
The 'big three' nutrients for bone health
Calcium is the bone health nutrient that gets the most airtime, and for good reason. According to Shapiro, calcium is an important contributor to overall bone density, which starts to decrease after the age of 35, making it especially important to continue to eat adequate amounts of calcium as we age.
Shapiro explains that our bones are the main storage area of calcium in our bodies. "In fact, about 99 percent of calcium is stored away in our bones, with the other one percent in blood and muscle tissue," she says. And while the bones house most of the calcium, it’s used for a variety of other functions in the body, including regulating the nervous system. That means that if you don’t consume enough calcium to perform these other essential functions, your body will start to pull the important mineral from your bones to compensate, potentially leading to bone weakness and even osteoporosis.
Before you hit the supplement aisle, you should know that, for the average person, it’s actually recommended to get your calcium intake through your diet and not rely on supplements. Excess calcium has been linked to cardiovascular disease, which can be common with supplementation. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium is one gram for women between the ages of 18-50, and 1.2 grams for women over 50. You should always consult your doctor to learn if you should be taking a calcium supplement for your unique needs.
That being said, the good news is that there are a multitude of foods that are rich in calcium and, with a little planning, you can get all of your calcium needs through your diet. Shapiro recommends milk, cheese, leafy green vegetables, salmon, sardines, tofu, and yogurt as excellent food sources of calcium.
2. Vitamin D
You can’t talk about the importance of calcium for bone health without mentioning vitamin D. “Calcium does not get absorbed without vitamin D3, so it is important to get enough vitamin D as well for bone strength,” says Shapiro. In nature’s perfect wisdom, many foods that contain calcium, such as milk and salmon, also serve as excellent food sources of vitamin D, which is another benefit of getting your nutrients from your meals. Other excellent food sources for vitamin D are sardines, cod liver oil, canned tuna, egg yolks, and mushrooms. Another great way to get in enough vitamin D is through unfiltered natural light. “Our best source for vitamin D is the sun,” says Shapiro, recommending 15 minutes of sun exposure daily to meet your vitamin D needs.
If you didn’t already love this super mineral for its positive impact on sleep quality, you will for its bone benefits. “Being deficient in magnesium has been shown to weaken bones and those with higher magnesium levels have been shown to have increased bone density,” says Shapiro. This means that it’s incredibly important to maintain balanced levels of magnesium to protect bone health and avoid osteoporosis, especially as we age.
Foods rich in magnesium include pumpkin seeds, spinach, cashews, black beans, peanuts, edamame, almonds, and—everyone’s favorite superfood—dark chocolate.
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