By the time you’re 30 years old, you’ve achieved your peak bone mass for life. Once you reach 50, the body’s bone-rebuilding process slows, and you begin to lose bone mass. Add to this a loss in estrogen after menopause, and your bones are seriously at risk later in life. The good news? These six strategies can help save your bones and keep your skeleton strong.
1. Do Calcium Right
It’s the primary mineral found in bones, and it’s critical to bone structure and strength. The problem is absorption: if you eat (or take) too much calcium at once, your body will actually absorb less. So focus on eating smaller amounts at each meal—less than 500 mg per serving is ideal, for a total of 1,000–1,200 mg a day. That’s the equivalent of a glass of milk, a cup of cooked collards, a small container of yogurt, and one serving of beans.
Also, remember that calcium alone isn’t enough. You need vitamin D, zinc, and other minerals to help your body properly utilize calcium. Magnesium is especially important. It converts vitamin D into an active form that helps calcium absorption, and excess calcium with too little magnesium may contribute to osteoporosis and calcification of the arteries, leading to heart attack and cardiovascular disease. And try to get most of your calcium from foods. A recent study found that people who took calcium supplements had a 22 percent greater risk of heart disease. If you take supplements, avoid those made with calcium carbonate, which is a poorly absorbed form of the mineral.
2. Stress Your Bones
It sounds counterintuitive, but the bones respond to impact by getting denser and stronger. Running, jogging, tennis, or jumping rope are good choices; or just jump in place 10–20 times, twice a day. In one study, that much jumping significantly increased bone density.
If your knees don’t love to jump, strength training is another great choice. Studies show increases in bone density, size, and strength, as well as reductions in bone loss, in people who do weight-bearing or resistance exercise. Strength training also increases muscle mass, encourages weight loss, improves coordination, and can reduce the risk of falls and fractures.
3. Concentrate on Vitamin K
Kale, spinach, collards, chard, turnip greens, and other dark leafy greens are rich in vitamin K, which works in concert with vitamin D and bone-building minerals. Vitamin K also reduces the risk of calcification when taking calcium supplements—studies show that people with higher intakes of vitamin K have a 57 percent reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, and an 81 percent reduction in fractures.
Greens, vegetables, and fruits are rich in other nutrients needed for bone health, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, and boron. One study found that people who ate few plant foods had an 88 percent higher rate of hip fracture, compared with those who ate five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
In one study, people who ate broccoli, cabbage, parsley, or other plants had less bone breakdown. Onions are especially protective: women who ate the most had a 20 percent reduction in hip fractures.
4. Be Protein-Smart
Protein makes up about half the volume of bones and provides their structural matrix. But dietary protein can be detrimental or beneficial to bones, depending on the amount and type of protein you eat, your calcium levels, and the acid/base balance of your diet.
A few studies suggest that high-protein diets can increase calcium excretion, deplete calcium from bones, and increase risk of osteoporosis. But most studies show that low protein intake can hamper calcium absorption and may impact bone formation and breakdown. In one study, women who ate 86 grams of protein per day lost less bone mass than women who ate 60 grams. Additionally, higher protein consumption improves bone density and decreases the risk of fractures, especially in older women.
The difference seems to be intake of calcium and plant foods. As long as calcium intake is adequate and your diet includes ample amounts of alkalizing fruits and vegetables, protein intake is likely to be helpful, not harmful, to bones.
5. Watch Your Weight
When it comes to bone health, you can be too thin. In general, low body weight is the primary factor contributing to reduced bone density and bone loss in menopausal women—the group most likely to suffer from osteoporosis. Losing a large amount of weight, as well as yo-yo dieting and repeatedly gaining and losing weight, are especially harmful to bone health. In one study, bone lost during weight loss was not regained, even if weight was regained. People on super-low-calorie diets are especially at risk—eating less than 1,000 calories per day can reduce bone density, regardless of your weight.
Being too heavy isn’t good for bones either. Obesity can reduce bone density and volume, and the stress of excess weight increases the risk of fractures.
6. Call on Collagen
In addition to calcium, magnesium, and other supplements, adding collagen to your diet may benefit bone health. Collagen makes up the soft matrix of the bones. While most studies have examined the effect of collagen on arthritis, a few studies show that it’s beneficial for bone health as well.
If you eat meat, bone broth is one of the most efficient dietary sources of collagen. Gelatin, from grass-fed sources, is another option—make fruit-based Jello, gummies, or marshmallows for collagen-rich snacks. If you don’t eat meat, look for nutrients that support collagen synthesis, most notably vitamin C, biotin, silica, and amino acids (proline, lysine, and glycine).