Our lovely bones support our shape and movement and it would be really great to start to invest in good bone health all through our lives. After all, we will want to remain mobile and strong for as long as possible as we age. So, how can we invest in our bone health? Issues with our bones can be a problem for many reasons including poor diet, compromised digestion, which means that we can’t absorb the nutrients our bones need from our food, or the influence of ageing and declining oestrogen.
We are probably most familiar with a condition called Osteoporosis, which is a disease which causes bones to become weak and brittle. Even a small fall or mild stress such as bending over or coughing can cause a bone to fracture in people with this disease. Osteoporosis-related fractures most commonly occur in the hip, wrist or spine. Bone conditions are most often diagnosed in older people, but younger people, who are malnourished or missing some critical nutrients in their diet, can also have issues (eg rickets and vitamin D). So, ensuring that we include bone healthy food in our weekly meals is like putting money in the bank for a rainy day – we will definitely be glad we did it!
About Our Bones
So, lets start with the fact that bones are actually living tissue which is constantly being broken down and replaced, just like all the other cells in our bodies. When a person is diagnosed with for example osteoporosis, the rate at which new bone is being created doesn’t keep up with the rate of removal of old bone.
Our bones make up our skeletal system and this is our support structure for our body. So, it gives the body its shape, allows movement, stores minerals, makes blood cells and provides protection for organs (eg ribs). Our bones work with our muscles, and together they are referred to as the musculoskeletal system.
What nutrients support our bone health
Many nutrients play a role in bone health, such as calcium, vitamin D, protein, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, boron, silicon, zinc, and anti-oxidants Vitamins C & E. Eating a variety of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins regularly will enable us to get enough of most of the nutrients we need to keep our bones healthy and functioning well. However, because nature is clever, there is a crossover with a lot of the foods, so some will provide a couple of the nutrients needed in one package! The table below details sources of these nutrients but it can be useful to know what they do to motivate us to make sure we include them. So let’s start with calcium which is one of the main ones and the one that is most talked about
First of all, there are many sources of calcium, in addition to dairy so don’t worry if you are intolerant, you can actually consume calcium from plants also. For example, sesame seeds, tofu, nuts and leafy greens are great sources. Both calcium and phosphorus are building blocks for bones and if our blood serum levels of calcium (i.e. the amount of calcium in our blood) gets too low, then calcium will be resorbed, or taken down from, our bones because we need calcium for other functions too including our cell health, heart health, muscle contraction and nerve function. This removal can contribute to low bone density. It is safest to get your calcium from food but if you need to supplement, do so with advice from your doctor or health practitioner. When supplementing with Calcium, take at night when it is best absorbed and aids sleep. You can click this link to check if your calcium intake is adequate based on your gender, age etc.
Calcium and phosphorus work really closely together to build strong bones and teeth and after calcium, phosphorus is among the most abundant mineral in the body. About 85% of the phosphorus in our body can be found in our bones and teeth and the other 15% is distributed in cells and tissues around the body. It actually carries out many important functions but in relation to bone health it is needed for the growth, maintenance, and repair of bones.
Now in order to actually absorb calcium in our gut we need Vitamin D which helps our gut to absorb the calcium from our food and so to regulate our blood serum level. We know that the best source of Vitamin D is sunlight so in Ireland we generally need to supplement at least from September through to March when the sun is too low in the sky. Again, we can over dose on vitamin D so it is best to get advice about safe levels. You could listen to Alimentary! podcast on Apple or Spotify for more information about vitamin D exposure, sunscreen and sources.
Protein is a macro nutrient which we use to build, re-build and repair. It is needed to re-build and repair our bones and imagine that it is like scaffolding which allows calcium and phosphorous to stick to it to harden and form the shape of the bone. We need to make sure that we are consuming good sources of protein. Sardines or tinned salmon are actually great source of both protein and calcium.
We need a mineral called Boron to help us to make the most out of the minerals in our food and it also reduces the amount of minerals we lose when we pee. So this helps our overall health, including bone health, by making sure that we have retain minerals to maintain healthy bones.
Copper is needed to help minerals, including calcium, to attach to the protein structure, or scaffolding, to structure our bones. We only need a small amount so again you wouldn’t want to over-do it on the supplementing so it is best to get from your food because too much can be toxic to the liver and kidneys (remember nature knows the right amounts).
Magnesium is super important for many functions, but in reference to our bones, it helps our body to use calcium and vitamin D, so it helps them to harden and strengthen our bones. Magnesium is not generally tested but low levels may be a risk factor for osteoporosis, so it is important to make sure that you include magnesium rich foods in your healthy and balanced diet. You could read previous blog here if you would like more information.
Vitamin K activates a protein called osteocalcin, which builds and heals our bones.
Potassium has been found to reduce acidity in our bloodstream and the amount of calcium we lose when we pee.
Silicon helps calcium and other minerals attach to the protein structure that makes up our bones.
Zinc also helps calcium and other minerals attach to the protein structure that makes up our bones.
Vitamins B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid) and B12 (cobalamin) help to strengthen our bones and so hopefully prevent breaks. B12 supports our bone building cells (osteoblasts). B9 and B12 help to control levels of homocysteine, which if it is too high can be linked to an increased risk of breaking a bone in older people.
Antioxidants like Vitamin C and Vitamin E, help to protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are a natural by-product which occur when our body converts oxygen and food into energy. It is believed that if free radicals build up, they can cause our bones to lose strength. Vitamin C also supports the formation of collagen, a protein important in bone formation.
Fatty acids Omega 3 and Omega 6 help our body absorb fat-soluble vitamins essential for bone health, like D, E and K.
Phyto-oestrogens have a slight ‘oestrogrenic’ effect on the body. There are studies which show that this may help to keep bones strong in postmenopausal women whose natural oestrogen levels have dropped. They are plant-based substances, found in foods including soya products, like tofu and soya milk and flaxseeds.
Now, you don’t have to try to include every singe food in the table below! I usually suggest to clients to highlight the foods that you like in each section (some will crossover a couple of nutrients) and make sure to include them in your shopping list.
Foods Containing Bone Healthy Nutrients include:
|Almonds, broccoli, buckwheat, dairy products, egg yolk, green leafy vegetables, molasses, sardines, sesame seeds, soybeans, turnips
|Dairy products, red meat, seafood, nuts and legumes (best absorbed from animal products)
|Asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, eggs, kale, lettuce, oats, pork, soy beans, beef liver, spinach
|Cod Liver Oil, butter from grass fed cows (eg Kerrygold), egg yolk, sprouted seeds. Best source is sunlight, may need to supplement in winter months with Vitamin D3
|Almonds, barley, brewer’s yeast, cashews, cocoa (dark chocolate), cod, eggs, figs, flaxseeds, kelp, leafy greens, legumes, mineral water, molasses, parsnips, seeds, soy beans, walnuts, wholegrain cereals, brown rice
|Meat, fish, eggs, quinoa, buckwheat, lentils, pulses, nuts & seeds
|Blackberries, aloe vera juice, blackcurrants, broccoli, brussels sprouts, citrus fruits, parsley, peppers, pineapple, potatoes, raw cabbage, strawberries, sweet potatoes, tomatoes
|Soya, corn and olive oils, nuts, seeds
|Almonds, apples, dates, grapes, hazelnuts, legumes, pears, prunes, raisins, soymilk, walnuts
|Shellfish , wholegrains, beans, nuts, potatoes, organ meats (kidneys, liver), dark leafy greens, dried fruits such as prunes, cocoa, black pepper
|Barley, peppers, brown rice, green beans, mineral water, mussels, oats, raisins, root vegetables, wholegrain cereals
|Bananas, avocados, beetroot, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, nuts and seeds, pulses, fish, shellfish, beef, chicken, turkey and milk
|Eggs, dairy, red meat, shellfish, wholegrain bread, cereals, brazil nuts, pecans
|Oily fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel), flaxseeds (also phyto-oestrogen) , chia seeds, walnuts
|Walnuts, tofu, sunflower seeds, eggs, almonds, cashews
|Fish, beef liver and other organ meats, potatoes and other starchy vegetables, and fruit (other than citrus)
|Beans, lentils, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, avocado, mangos, lettuce, sweet corn, oranges, and wholegrain bread
|Animal products meat, fish, eggs
In addition to consuming the nutrients we need, it is essential to include some weight bearing exercise like brisk walking and weight training to keep our bones strong. However, depending on our stage in life or health status, it may be worth getting advice about how much exercise and which types are safe for us to do. We should also avoid smoking and limit alcohol intake.
Our weight can also influence our bone health. So for example, if we are under an ideal weight for our height eg BMI is less that 20, then our bones may not have enough protection if we fall. If we are over our ideal weight for our height then this may put extra strain on our joints which can prevent us from doing those load bearing exercises.
The good news is that all of these recommendations such as eating whole foods and exercising are good for not only our bones but our overall health!