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Health & Wellness

The Basics of a Bone-Healthy Diet

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Exercise and diet both play an important role in keeping our bones healthy and helping us preserve bone mass.

Stronger bones may lower the risk of fractures and the sometimes long-lasting and debilitating health problems those broken bones may cause.

“Lifestyle is very important in preventing bone loss,” says Adrienne Youdim, MD, a physician nutrition specialist and associate clinical professor at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “Regular physical activity is one key element. Both weight-bearing exercise and cardio activities stimulate osteoblasts, the cells that activate new bone formation.” Be sure to check with your health care practitioner before starting a new exercise program.

The other element of maintaining bone health is a diet rich in the nutrients that have bone-boosting benefits: calcium and vitamin D, with ample amounts of magnesium and protein.

If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia, a less severe form of bone loss that puts you at risk of developing osteoporosis, regular exercise and smart food choices can protect your bones from further weakening. And, as Dr. Youdim points out, good fitness and dietary habits are an important complement to any bone-building medication your physician may prescribe. 

Here are a few suggestions:

Get enough protein. “Protein is important in preventing bone loss, but many people tend to consume less protein as they age,” says Dr. Youdim. Aim for 20 grams of proteins in each meal. That’s about the amount of protein in a cup of Greek yogurt, three eggs, or a three-ounce serving of chicken or fish. Beans, lentils, peas and nuts are good sources of plant-based protein.

Eat fish regularly. Fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, are rich in both calcium and vitamin D.  Canned fish is inexpensive, healthy and convenient. Sprinkle canned sardines, salmon or tuna with lemon juice and olive oil and add to a green salad or to pasta dressed with shallots and parsley.

Aim for a wide variety of whole foods rather than focusing on a specific food. Low-fat milk and cheese, yogurt, nuts, legumes, whole grains, lean protein, fruits and vegetables of all sorts are all smart choices. A daily balance of these unprocessed foods can be the foundation of a bone-healthy diet. Looking for bone-boosting superstars? You’ll find that in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, kale, mustard greens, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

Consider fortified foods. Not a fan of dairy? Make the most of the limited dairy you do consume by choosing products fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Studies have shown that these fortified foods can significantly slow down bone turnover.

Soak up some sun. When the weather permits, 10 or 15 minutes spent outdoors, with sunscreen, at midday exposing your skin to sunlight will help your body manufacture vitamin D. Take precautions if you have fairer skin, and make sure to check with your doctor if you have any.

Take a supplement. If you’re eating a well-balanced diet with plenty of dairy, fish, fruits and vegetables, you should be getting enough of the nutrients you need, says the National Osteoporosis Foundation.But if you think you may not be getting enough vitamins and minerals because of a sluggish appetite or dietary restrictions, talk with your doctor about taking a supplement. For some guidance, the National Institute on Aging offers recommendations on how much of each vitamin and mineral people over 50 need.

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