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Eating Your Way To Good Bone Health


Last week's segment of our consumer health series, Vital Signs, told you about fragility fractures, and how they often can be a first sign of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. Your diet can boost good bone health. 

Sharon Cox, a dietitian with Parkland Hospital System, shares some advice for guarding against osteoporosis.

From Sharon Cox’s interview:

Two nutrients are considered essential to developing and maintaining healthy bones. Calcium helps build bone mass. Vitamin D helps the bones absorb the calcium.

How much calcium you need depends on your age:

  • 18 – 50 years old: 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day.
  • After age 50: 1,200 (mg) of calcium a day.

The full amount is too much for the body to absorb at one time. So if you’re taking calcium supplements, Cox recommends splitting the amount: Half after breakfast, the rest after dinner.
Good food sources of calcium include:

  • Dairy products such as low-fat, non-fat and whole milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Canned sardines and salmon (Cox: "Mash and eat the small bones. They're rich in calcium.")
  • Collard greens, turnip greens, kale, okra, Chinese cabbage, dandelion greens, mustard greens and broccoli.

Vitamin D:

  • Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese, margarine, eggs (Vitamin D is in the yolk)
  • Fatty varieties of fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines
  • Cod liver oil

Fortified Foods

Calcium and vitamin D are sometimes added to certain brands of juices, breakfast foods, soy milk, rice milk, cereals, snacks and breads.

More Tips for Eating for Good Bone Health (from National Osteoporosis Foundation)

  • Beans (legumes). While beans contain calcium, beans contain magnesium, fiber and other nutrients, they are also high in substances called phytates. Phytates interfere with your body’s ability to absorb the calcium that is contained in beans. You can reduce the phytate level by soaking beans in water for several hours and then cooking them in fresh water.
  • Meat and other high protein foods. It’s important to get enough, but not too much protein for bone health and overall health. Many older adults do not get enough protein in their diets and this may be harmful to bones. However, special high protein diets that contain multiple servings of meat and protein with each meal can also cause the body to lose calcium. You can make up for this loss by getting enough calcium for your body’s needs.
  • Salty foods. Eating foods that have a lot of salt (sodium) causes your body to lose calcium and can lead to bone loss. Try to limit the amount of processed foods, canned foods and salt added to the foods you eat each day. To learn if a food is high in sodium, look at the Nutrition Facts label.
  • Spinach and other foods with oxalates. Your body doesn’t absorb calcium well from foods that are high in oxalates (oxalic acid) such as spinach. Other foods with oxalates are rhubarb, beet greens and certain beans. These foods contain other healthy nutrients, but they just shouldn’t be counted as sources of calcium.
  • Wheat bran. Like beans, wheat bran contains high levels of phytates which can prevent your body from absorbing calcium. However, unlike beans, 100% wheat bran is the only food that appears to reduce the absorption of calcium in other foods eaten at the same time. For example, when you have milk and 100% wheat bran cereal together, your body can absorb some, but not all, of the calcium from the milk. The wheat bran in other foods like breads is much less concentrated and not likely to have a noticeable impact on calcium absorption. If you take calcium supplements, you may want to take them two or more hours before or after eating 100% wheat bran.

Alcohol and Caffeine

  • Alcohol. Drinking heavily can lead to bone loss. Limit alcohol to no more than 2 - 3 drinks per day.
  • Caffeine. Coffee, tea and soft drinks (sodas) contain caffeine, which may decrease calcium absorption and contribute to bone loss. Choose these drinks in moderation.
  • Coffee/tea. Drinking more than three cups of coffee every day may interfere with calcium absorption and cause bone loss.
  • Soft drinks. Some studies suggest that colas, but not other soft drinks, are associated with bone loss. The carbonation in soft drinks does not cause any harm to bone. The caffeine and phosphorous commonly found in colas may contribute to bone loss. Like calcium, phosphorous is a part of the bones. It is listed as an ingredient in colas, some other soft drinks and processed foods as “phosphate” or “phosphoric acid.”
Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.