Bone Health Nutrients - What You Need to Know

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Postmenopausal women over age 50 are at an increased risk for osteoporosis, a disease characterized by fragile bones. The risk can be even higher if your diet is lacking in nutrients known to help keep your bones strong.

Understanding what nutrients your bones need to be healthy, and where to find them, can help you reduce your risk of osteoporosis.

What nutrients are good for bone health?

Several nutrients work together to support the health of your bones, especially as you age. The two we hear about the most often are calcium and vitamin D, but many other micronutrients are also involved.

Calcium

Approximately 99% of the calcium in your body is stored in your bones and teeth. Your body is regularly losing calcium through bodily fluids, skin, and hair, making it essential to replenish your calcium stores through the foods you eat. When there’s not enough calcium in your diet, your body will start taking it from your bones. Over time, this leads to the weakening of your bones and can ultimately cause osteoporosis.

Sources of calcium:

  • Dark leafy green vegetables

  • Broccoli

  • Oranges

  • Figs

  • Beans

  • Almonds

  • Fortified orange juice

  • Fortified plant milks

  • Dairy products

  • Calcium-set tofu 

Vitamin D

You need vitamin D to absorb calcium. Without enough vitamin D, your body is unable to make calcitriol, a hormone necessary for healthy bones. These two nutrients work closely together to keep your bones strong.

 
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Sources of vitamin D:

  • Sunlight (5-30 minutes at least twice per week without sunscreen is best)

  • Fortified plant and dairy milks

  • Ultraviolet-treated mushrooms

  • Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, and mackerel

  • A dietary supplement of 600 IU per day for postmenopausal women under age 70

There are also a few lesser known micronutrients that play a role in bone health.

Magnesium

Research shows that magnesium deficiency can have a detrimental impact on bone density. Many scientists, therefore, suggest that inadequate magnesium in the body can be a risk factor for osteoporosis.

Sources of magnesium:

  • Avocado

  • Spinach

  • Tofu

  • Black beans

  • Brazil nuts

  • Almonds

  • Cashews

  • Bananas

  • Pumpkin seeds

  • Chia seeds

  • Fatty fish, like salmon, halibut, and mackerel

 
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Silicon

Deficiency in silicon has been associated with lower bone mineral density. Studies show that postmenopausal women don’t consume enough silicon and likely don’t absorb it as well when they do.  

Sources of silicon:

  • Bread

  • Unrefined cereals

  • Beer

  • Baking products

Vitamin K

Vitamin K comes in two forms, K1 and K2, both of which are needed for coagulation (prevention of blood clots) as well as preventing bone fractures. Inadequate vitamin K has been shown to increase the risk for osteopenia, whereas adequate vitamin K improves bone strength. 

Sources of vitamin K:

  • Collard greens

  • Edamame

  • Turnip greens

  • Broccoli

  • Natto (a traditional Japanese food made from soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis var. natto)

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Kale

  • Avocado

  • Kiwi

  • Prunes

 
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Boron

While approximately half of the US population eats less than 1 mg of boron per day, intake of at least 3 mg per day in postmenopausal women has been shown to improve bone density. Boron appears to reduce the losses of calcium and magnesium in the body.

Sources of boron:

  • Raisins

  • Avocado

  • Dried apricots

  • Almonds

  • Peanut butter

  • Hazelnuts

  • Walnuts

Vitamin C

Today, it’s generally difficult to become deficient in vitamin C in developed countries. However, not getting enough vitamin C can lead to conditions that damage your bones. Research shows that inadequate vitamin C intake can lead to osteoporosis and increased fracture risk. Vitamin C supports the production of collagen, a protein that makes up most of your bones and provides their soft framework (calcium provides the hard structural components). 

Sources of vitamin C:

  • Citrus fruits, like lemons, limes, and oranges

  • Black currants

  • Berries

  • Bell peppers

  • Tomatoes

  • Broccoli

  • Herbs like thyme and parsley

  • Kale

  • Brussels sprouts

 
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What foods should you avoid for better bone health?

Minimizing your consumption of refined sugars and processed foods is a good idea, for your bones and overall health. Foods that are high in sodium and caffeine may also reduce calcium absorption and lead to increased calcium loss.

Meat and other sources of animal protein may actually cause calcium loss from your bones. This may be because they are high in sulfur-containing amino acids. These can be replaced by sources of plant protein (e.g., beans, lentils, peas, tofu, nuts, and seeds).

But what about milk? We often hear that dairy products are the best sources of nutrients that are good for our bones, like calcium. However, research has shown that drinking a ton of milk may not be helpful at all. In fact, high consumption of milk has been associated with an increased risk for bone fractures. For this reason, some researchers recommend no more than one glass per day. Besides, there are plenty of other sources of calcium out there.

Not surprisingly, a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds offers the most benefit to your bones. Several examples of these foods are listed above. Eating for your bone health doesn’t necessarily entail a huge diet overhaul. However, it’s a good idea to take a look at your current eating pattern and see where adjustments can be made to further support your skeleton. In many cases, this means adding more fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods to your routine and swapping out foods that are less beneficial to our health like packaged and processed foods, junk foods, and fast food.  

For more information about eating for your bone health, visit us at Lisa Health.

Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and speaker who helps families transition to plant-based lifestyles. She can be found at laurenpanoff.com or on Instagram @chronicplanet.

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