How to Support Bone Health Through Nutrition

By Peggy Kotsopoulos, RHN on March 2, 2015 , categorized in Plant-based Nutrition

What’s a brain without a skull? A heart without a ribcage? Yep, without bones, we’d pretty much be piles of mush.  Not only do bones provide our structure and frame, they protect our organs and muscles. Bone mass peaks between ages 20 and 30, which means childhood and adolescence are crucial times for building healthy bones. Adults have to focus on preventing bone loss. Yes, this is one more reason to envy the young, but who has time to do that when you’re busy arranging a diet and lifestyle that protects the bones you’ve got? Bone loss can begin in your early thirties—sometimes earlier—so preserving bone health needs to be a priority.  Here’s the low-down on keeping your bones in tip-top shape.

Calcium and Bone Loss

Of all the minerals in the human body, calcium is the most abundant, making up 1 ½ to 2% of our total body weight. And while 99% of calcium cozies up in our bones and teeth, it’s the prodigal 1 percent that resides in our blood and tissues that gets top priority.3National Institutes of Health. (2013). Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium.  Accessed on 2/23/15 from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/ Yep, blood and tissues trump their skeletal sister’s bony bottom because their needs must be met first.

Normal blood calcium levels are very tightly regulated. If this balance isn’t maintained through a proper diet, the parathyroid hormone will draw calcium from our bones to meet the blood and cellular requirements, resulting in bone calcium loss.

Calcium is absorbed in the small intestines, but at decreasing rates. Infants and young children absorb more calcium due to building bone, and this rate decreases as you age.4National Institutes of Health. (2013). Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium.  Accessed on 2/23/15 from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/  The ultimate irony? More is not better. Large amounts of calcium at a single time can result in less calcium being absorbed. Less than 500 milligrams at a time is a good guide.5Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2010. So ultimately it’s best to eat a variety of bone-building foods throughout the day.  These plant-based foods have calcium:6National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. (2013). Fact Sheet For Health Professionals: Calcium.  Accessed on 2/23/15 from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Calcium-HealthProfessional/

Food Source Calcium (mg) % DV
6 oz. calcium-fortified orange juice 261 26%
1 serving Vega One French Vanilla 217 20%
4 small corn tortilla 184 18%
1 cup cooked bok choy 158 16%
1 1/2 cup cooked kale 141 14%
1/2 cup tofu (with “calcium sulfate” in ingredient list) 131 13%
1 cup calcium-fortified almond milk (such as So Delicious Almondmilk Beverage) 100 10%

No one food can ever be expected to provide all of your daily needs, but eating a variety of plant-based foods that have calcium throughout the day can help you to meet your needs.

Magnesium

Everyone stresses over getting enough calcium, but when have you thought twice about magnesium? Dietary surveys of North America consistently show that intakes of magnesium are lower than recommended.7National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. (2014) Fact Sheet For Health Professionals: Vitamin D. Accessed on 2/19/16 from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/And magnesium has a lot going for it.

Magnesium plays a role in enzymatic activity and energy production in the body. It helps in the transport of calcium across cells in the body, which helps to regulate muscle contraction, nerve impulse conduction and normal heart rhythm.8National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. (2013). Fact Sheet For Health Professionals: Magnesium. Accessed on 2/23/15 from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/

Good plant-based sources include almonds, spinach, cashews, black beans, peanuts and avocado.9National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. (2013). Fact Sheet For Health Professionals: Magnesium. Accessed on 2/23/15 from: http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/

Vitamin D

If magnesium is calcium’s silent partner, vitamin D is its best friend. This handy vitamin is essential for absorbing both calcium and phosphorus from the digestive tract. It also helps maintain normal blood calcium levels, and is needed for bone growth. Without enough vitamin D, bones can become thin, brittle, or misshapen.10National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. (2014) Fact Sheet For Health Professionals: Vitamin D. Accessed on 2/19/16 from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/

Unfortunately, for most people in North America, getting enough vitamin D can be tricky. That’s because UVB rays stimulate our bodies to make the vitamin, and most people living north of the Sun Belt (southern United States) just don’t get enough sun exposure. (Not to mention that prevalent sunscreen use and growing concern over sun damage encourages people to shun the sun).  You can find vitamin D in fortified plant-based foods, as well as in supplements.

Exercise

We know exercise is good for your heart, your waistline, and your mood. And if that weren’t enough, it turns out exercise is good for your bones, too. Just as weight training provides muscle-building resistance, contracting muscles create resistance and tension against bones, which ultimately increases their density. Both weight bearing aerobic exercise and resistance training do the trick when it comes to building bone density, but as you might guess, resistance training is most effective. So strap on your sneakers and hit the gym.

How are you making your bones happy today?

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bone health calcium plant-based vegan vegetarian women's health

Peggy Kotsopoulos, RHN

Peggy Kotsopoulos is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Vega’s Expert Panel. As a registered holistic nutritionist and health educator, her mission is to help people achieve long-term health and vitality with what you eat. With her frequent media appearances and lectures, she travels across North America inspiring others to live their most vibrant life.

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