Seven tips to maintain strong bones
High-calcium foods, vitamin D and exercise help at any age
Remember that teenage years are key
Until about the age of 30, our bodies are still building bone and the teenage years are the crucial period in this process – osteoporosis has been called “a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences”. Girls build as much bone in the two years after their first period as they lose in the last four decades of their lives.
Watch your calcium intake
A healthy, balanced diet should usually contain everything the body needs for strong bones, primarily calcium and vitamin D. According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, the recommended dietary allowance RDA is 800 mg/day for children, adults and older people, increasing to 1,200 mg for teenagers, pregnant and lactating women.Postmenopausal women do not absorb as much calcium and suffer from greater bone loss, so supplements may be needed. Adolescent girls, athletes and those with lactose intolerance are among other groups who may need supplementation.
Most of us are taught from childhood that milk builds strong bones. But there are a lot of foods with a high calcium content, many of them non-dairy, such as tofu, nuts, sardines, chickpeas, fortified cereals and green leafy vegetables. High intake of green and yellow vegetables has been linked with increased bone mineralisation during childhood and the maintenance of bone mass in young adults. Beware of spinach, though – while it is good for you in other ways, it is high in oxalic acid, which prevents your body from absorbing calcium as efficiently.
Monitor your vitamin D level
The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium properly – and a lack of it can lead to bone deformities such as rickets or osteomalacia. In Ireland, most of us absorb enough vitamin D from sunshine in spring and summer, but between October and March we don’t. National guidelines recommend considering a daily supplement of 10 micrograms. You can also boost your intake of vitamin-D rich foods (such as eggs or fatty fish). At-risk groups, including people with darker skin and those who do not spend time outdoors (such as people in care homes), should consider following this guidance all year.
Weight-bearing exercise is vital in maintaining bone health throughout life. Running, brisk walking, weight training and yoga are all good exercises. Yes, running: a study of nearly 75,000 runners and 15,000 walkers found that the former were roughly half as likely to develop arthritis as the latter. Even people who have osteoporosis can and should – with a doctor’s approval – do regular exercise. The National Osteoporosis Society is a good resource for information.
Get enough protein
While protein deficiency is very rare, there is some evidence that a low intake decreases calcium absorption. Older women seem to benefit particularly from higher protein consumption. In a study of more than 144,000 postmenopausal women, higher protein intake was associated with a lower risk of fractures and higher bone density.
Maintain a healthy weight
Being very underweight, or following an extremely low-calorie diet, are significant risk factors for bone loss. One study of women following a 925-calorie-a-day diet showed that they experienced significant bone loss, even while following a resistance-training programme.