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Concerned About Bone Health? Here Are Essential Nutrients To Keep You Going Strong

Healthy bones and dairy go together like, well, cookies and milk. But if you’re over the age of about 12, that simple equation is unlikely to sustain your skeletal health. Happily, a familiar range of foods — along with vitamins, minerals and weight-bearing exercise — can combine to keep your bones strong.

Calcium Matters

Calcium builds bone density, especially if taken with vitamin D, which helps us absorb the calcium. Absorption matters because calcium helps osteoblasts and osteoclasts — cells that cause bones to grow and develop — dissolve old or damaged bone, and create and strengthen new and existing bone. You must have calcium in order for your bones to go through the process of strengthening and rebuilding over a lifetime.

If you’re getting your calcium through a supplement — as about a quarter of American men and a third of American women do — it’s important to have it in divided doses. The body can absorb only about 500 mg at a time — excess calcium stored in the body creates a risk for renal stones.

Building a Foundation

The biggest period of bone building is childhood, up to the teenage years. That tails off for females as menstruation sets in — earlier these days — usually by age 16. Boys’ peak bone development goes to 19 or 20. When teens stop drinking fortified milk — think school lunches — and turn to soda and other drinks marketed to them, they lose a huge source of dietary calcium.

Although it’s never too late to start building healthier bones, if you don’t get enough calcium as a kid, it may increase your risk of fracture, which can significantly increase risk of mortality for those over 50. It’s especially important for pregnant women to get enough calcium and vitamin D — you’re building another body in there, and what the baby needs it will leach from the mother.

You’ve Heard It Before

Getting vitamins and minerals through food is almost always preferable, and that holds true for bone health. Besides dairy and fortified foods, leafy greens, soy and almonds are sources of dietary calcium. Nuts and seeds contain magnesium, another important nutrient for bones, along with potassium — found in many fruits and vegetables — and vitamin K.

If this sounds like recommendations you’ve heard before — for brain health, heart health and more — it’s because eating these foods helps to create an overall healthy system.

One calcium source you may not have heard of: The bones in canned salmon and some other tinned fish. These are soft and edible — you won’t notice them in something like salmon patties, easy to make in an air fryer. They also contain some vitamin D, hard to get through diet other than egg yolks. (Alas, bone marrow has no such benefits, nor does bone broth.)

For vegans or those who can’t tolerate dairy, good sources of dietary calcium include soy, seeds, fortified breads and plant-based milks as well as dried fruit like raisins, prunes, figs and apricots.

Hit the Pavement (Literally)

Diet alone will not ensure bone health. You also need to make load- or weight-bearing exercise part of your routine.

The process of bone remodeling in humans is not as effective as we age, particularly after 50. Weight-bearing and high-intensity exercise can help counteract that. (Pro tip: You don’t have to run. Speed walking and racewalking are especially beneficial because your foot strikes the surface with force, which enhances the effect.)

Can Diet Weaken Bones?

Alcohol, tobacco, salt, caffeine — these can all affect bone density and how bones age. An occasional glass of wine isn’t a problem; for women anything more than two drinks a day could be. Salty foods can cause your body to lose calcium — a concern if you eat out a lot or consume a lot of processed foods. Caffeine can decrease calcium absorption. A cup a day is fine, but if you routinely have multiple cups along with caffeinated sodas or energy drinks, that can contribute to bone loss. Studies also suggest that rapid swings between gaining and losing weight can impact bone density, leading to weaker bones.

How Do You Know if You’re Deficient?

How much calcium an individual needs varies widely, from about 200 mg a day for an infant to 1,300 for a breastfeeding mom. The best way to know your current bone health — and whether you need supplementation — is to have a DEXA scan, a finely tuned, low-dose X-ray that measures you head to toe and assigns you a bone-density score. DEXA scans are recommended for women 65 or over and men 70 or over — 50 if you have other factors. These scans can detect very small percentages of bone loss so are used to track changes over time. Routine laboratory tests also can help screen for osteoporosis, which increases vulnerability to fracture.

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