Because the human skeletal system, which is made of 206 bones, provides such crucial functions, a focus on bone health is important. Functions performed by our bones include:
- Providing structure to the body
- Producing red and white blood cells
- Storing minerals like calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium
- Protecting organs
- Allowing for the transport of nutrients and communication through canals, nerves, and blood vessels
- Helping to reduce fracture risk, maintain physical activity, and ensure a higher quality of life as we age
So, as these bullet points quickly demonstrate, our bone health is vital to our overall well-being throughout our lifetimes. But, before we dive into information about the best foods and vitamins for bone health—what is bone, exactly?
Structure of Bone
Bone is mostly made of collagen, which provides a flexible frame. Minerals also exist within this framework, which provide strength to the bone and allow them to maintain integrity under stress.
Bones change size and shape as humans age through bone growth and modeling. During childhood, more bone is created than destroyed, so bones are very dense. Once an individual turns thirty, bones have reached their peak density and begin to lose mass faster than they gain it. The good news is that bone remodeling occurs throughout all of adulthood and, if this process is supported through nutrition and physical exercise, bones will retain more of their strength.
As an individual gets older, the risk of osteoporosis—a disease that weakens the bones— increases due to a decrease in their density. Bone loss often occurs without any noticeable symptoms, too, which can lead to sudden, unexpected fractures.
In fact, one in two women over the age of fifty will fracture a bone due to osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis risk is determined by various factors, including body frame size, race, family history, sex, hormones, and age. However, a factor that can minimize osteoporosis risk is how we nourish our bodies—and, therefore, our bones. This will be discussed in detail below.
Vitamins for Bone Health: It's About More Than Just Calcium
Here’s what can help you to maintain good bone health.
- Calcium: Sources include dairy, almonds, kale, sardines, soy, and broccoli, and:
- Calcium is the main mineral found in bones. It’s important to include it in the diet consistently because old bone cells are constantly broken down and replaced by new ones.
- The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for adults ages nineteen to fifty and men ages fifty-one to seventy is 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day. For women aged fifty-one and older and for men age seventy-one and older, the recommendation is 1,200 mg a day.
- Eating an adequate amount of calcium at each meal is the best way to incorporate it into the diet. That’s because the body has a hard time absorbing calcium when high amounts are consumed at once, and there is a risk if there’s not enough dietary intake of Vitamin K2: some excess calcium can end up in the soft tissues (like blood vessels) instead of the bones.
- Vitamin D: Sources include salmon, trout, tuna, mushrooms (exposed to sunlight), eggs (chickens that are raised outdoors), and fortified foods, and:
- Vitamin D is required in the body to absorb calcium.
- Vitamin D deficiency in the U.S. is very common, so extra supplementation may be necessary.
- For adults aged nineteen to seventy, the RDA of vitamin D is 600 IU (15 mcg) a day. For adults aged seventy-one and older, the recommendation increases to 800 IU (20 mcg) a day.
- Vitamin D is made in the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight. In summer and spring, with about one fourth of the body’s skin exposed to sunlight, 1000 IU of vitamin D is made in just ten to fifteen minutes.
- Stimulates production of bone-forming cells
- Has antioxidant properties that help to manage oxidative stress, which supports collagen formation and may also protect bone cells from damage
- Plays a role in the building and reabsorption of bone
- Is found in green leafy vegetables, its main dietary source
- Is mainly produced by gut bacteria, but small amounts can be present in animal-based foods and fermented foods
- Aids in regulating calcium levels in the body, specifically transporting calcium across membranes so it can get to where it is needed in the body
- Is significantly (50-60 percent) stored in the skeletal system
- About 50 percent of bones are made of protein so, to replenish this supply, eating enough is vital
- Low protein intake decreases calcium absorption and may affect rates of bone formation and breakdown
Besides including important vitamins for bone health in your diet, it can also help to limit certain foods.
Foods to Limit to Support Skeletal System
These include added sugar, which can cause inflammation in the body—which, in turn, prevents organ systems (including the skeletal system) from functioning at their best. Avoid excess caffeine, too, because it reduces calcium absorption; consuming an excess amount can decrease bone strength. This effect can be offset by adding one to two tablespoons of milk into each cup of coffee and avoiding excessive consumption of caffeine (>400mg/day). Plus, chronic alcohol consumption contributes to lower bone density and an increased risk of fracture.
Incorporating Bone-Supporting Nutrients into the Diet
Here are ideas:
- Enjoy a smoothie with leafy greens (calcium, vitamin K, and vitamin C), berries (vitamin C), and yogurt (protein, calcium, and magnesium).
- Incorporate spinach or kale (vitamin K, magnesium, and calcium) into a salad for lunch with a source of protein like salmon or tofu.
- Incorporate more salmon into your diet (calcium, vitamin D and protein).
- Make a quiche with farm fresh eggs (vitamin K2 and D), spinach (magnesium and vitamin K), and mushrooms (vitamin D2). Tip: Cut your mushrooms then set them in the sun for thirty to sixty minutes before cooking to increase how much vitamin D they contain.
- Try an on-the-go snack of almonds (calcium) and broccoli (vitamin C and calcium).
Pass on the Supplements: Whole Food First
For most people, calcium supplements are not necessary, and some studies show they may be harmful (especially at higher doses). To optimize bone health, consider that bones are made from much more than just calcium so, by incorporating a diverse array of whole foods into the diet along with weight-bearing activities (like lifting weights) and avoiding excess sugar, caffeine, and alcohol, you can support bone health each and every day.
Let Us Be Your Farmacist
To maximize your bone health in delicious ways, build your own box of farm-fresh vegetables today! At The Chef’s Garden, we grow the best food as medicine to support you along your journey—and it’s available right here at Farmer Jones Farm. Join us on Facebook for even more helpful information: Farmacy at The Chef’s Garden.