5 Tips to Maximize Bone Health over a Lifetime

Bone health is an important consideration for people at any age. When we’re younger, the goal is to build as much as possible by staying active and eating well. Bone density typically peaks in our early 30s and then gradually declines over time. How quickly it declines, however, is significantly in your control. Consider these top five tips to maximize your bone health over a lifetime:

1. Exercise Consistently

Regular physical activity, particularly resistance, weight bearing and impact-based activities, can help build strong bones when we’re younger and significantly slow down (and sometimes stop) bone loss as we get older.

Appropriate levels of resistance training — such as body weight activities, machines or free weights — stress the muscles, which then pull on bones, creating a signal for the bone to build or maintain its strength. Depending on age and ability level, impact and plyometric exercises (skipping rope, jumping for a rebound, etc.) may be a great addition. It is essential that proper loads are chosen and form is maintained to prevent back, knee or other joint pain. Older individuals or those with chronic lower-body joint problems, might be better served with lower impact activities including walking, resistance training and water exercises.  

2. Eat Adequate Protein

The average healthy adult should consume at least 1.0 g/kg (or about 0.5 g per pound) of protein per day, ideally spread over multiple meals. For a 150-lb. person, that is equal to 68g of protein, which can be found in 2 eggs (12g), 1 cup of Greek yogurt (12g), 3 oz. of roasted chicken breast (27g) and ½ cup of tofu (20g). There are many vegetarian and vegan sources of protein as well, such as beans, nuts and whole grains.

More active individuals may require more protein, up to about 2g/kg (or about 1 g per pound) — and fluid intake should also get a bit of a boost to accommodate the increased protein. Finally, note that if you have reduced kidney function, higher protein intake may not be advisable. 

3. Getting Enough Calcium and Vitamin D: More than Just Milk

While dairy is often considered a “gold standard” for calcium and vitamin D, vegans and those who are lactose intolerant need not despair. There are many other sources of bone-building nutrients:

Calcium: Dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese), dark leafy greens (kale, collard greens, spinach), salmon, fish with  bones (i.e. canned salmon or sardines), soybeans/tofu, figs, sesame seeds, oranges, sweet potato, bok choy, broccoli, almonds, oats, lentils and lima beans.

Vitamin D: Sun exposure, sardines, salmon, mushrooms, eggs, fortified milk/dairy, fortified cereals, herring, liver and tuna.

4. Beyond Calcium and Vitamin D

While adequate calcium and vitamin D has been the main focus of bone health, research has shown other nutrients might be important, such as magnesium, potassium, vitamins C and K, several B vitamins and carotenoids. Results of calcium and vitamin D supplementation trials have not been consistent, which indicates sole reliance of supplementation for nutrient intake may be inadequate, further emphasizing the importance of eating a wide range of nutritious, whole foods. Here are some food that provide other nutrients — pick those you like and enjoy!

Magnesium: Whole grains (brown rice, bulgur, barley, etc.), avocado, spinach, haddock, oatmeal, beans, broccoli, yogurt, bananas, potatoes, apples, apricots, tofu, cantaloupe, grapefruit, green leafy veggies, lemons, nuts, salmon and sesame seeds.

Potassium: Dried apricots, sweet potato, tomatoes, raisins, baked potatoes, spinach, beans, dates, mushrooms, banana, parsnips and many other fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin C: Broccoli, cantaloupe, kiwi, oranges, pineapple, peppers, grapefruit, strawberries, asparagus, avocado, dark leafy greens, lemon, mangoes and onions.

Vitamin K: Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard/turnip greens, etc.), broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and asparagus.

B Vitamins: Depends on the particular vitamin, but found in a range of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean protein.

Carotenoids: Fruits and vegetables, particularly those that are orange or yellow.

5. Reduce Intake of Added-Sugar Foods 

Regular intake of cola beverages (and likely other foods high in added sugar) show negative effects on bone health. The less you have, at any age, the better.

In summary, the best steps for maintaining your bones are:

  • A balanced diet with adequate protein
  • Diet rich in fruits, vegetables and dairy (or other high calcium and vitamin D foods)
  • Limiting low-nutrient, high-sugar foods such as soda and candy
  • Adequate, consistent weight-bearing or resistance physical activity

And finally, be strategic — choose one food you can consistently eat and one activity that you can consistently perform over the next month.

Note: Be aware that certain foods can interact with medications, such as dark leafy greens and Coumadin. Review your medication list with a physician or registered dietitian before making any major dietary changes.

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Jason Machowsky
Originally an overweight engineer, Jason Machowsky, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, lost more than 30 pounds and changed careers to pursue his passion. Through his book and blog Death of the Diet, he empowers people to live the life they want by integrating healthy eating and physical activity habits into their daily routines. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.