“Eat your food so that you can grow up big and strong” is something that most of us heard growing up. While building strong bones was the hearty fuel behind the food airplanes that were ‘piloted’ by our parents, many of us do not think much about our bone health after that. This is unfortunate because the minerals needed to build bone mass are fused into your bones from the time you’re born, all the way through to your early adulthood. You only achieve peak bone mass when you are about 30 years of age. If you do not build enough bone mass during this time, you could be at risk of developing brittle bones that may break easily in your older years. But fear not because there are a lot of nutrition and lifestyle choices that you can still make to help you build and maintain strong bones as you grow older.
- Get plenty of calcium in your diet
The first, and probably most obvious, step to building strong bones is to introduce plenty of calcium into your daily diet. Not only does calcium make up much of your bones and teeth, but it’s also important for heart health, muscle function and nerve signalling. Yet most of us do not get the recommended daily intake (RDI) of about 1 000mg that we need to build sturdy bones. This can be easily changed by adding these calcium-rich foods into your meals and snacks:
- Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt
- Non-dairy milks like soy, nut, coconut, rice or oat-based milk
- Seeds and nuts, especially chia seeds and almonds
- Sardines and canned salmon
- Beans and lentils
- Whey protein
- Dark leafy greens
- Dried figs
- Fortified food and drinks
Remember to add these items to different meals and snacks throughout the day because your body cannot absorb your entire calcium RDI in one go.
- Eat enough protein
About 50% of your bones are made up of protein so it is crucial to make sure that you have plenty of it in your meal plan. Eating 100 grams of protein a day helps your body to absorb calcium into your bones. Protein-rich meals can also help avoid the loss of bone density during weight loss diets and protect your bone health as you age. In fact, one study done on older women shows that there was a link between higher protein intake and a lower risk of forearm fractures, and significantly higher bone density in the hip, spine and overall body.
- Strength and weight training
Strength and weight training exercises can help you build and maintain robust, healthy bones. Exercises, such as high impact training (HIIT), promotes the creation of new bone during the optimal years of bone development in your childhood and helps prevent bone loss in your golden years. Weight-bearing, strength and resistance training are not only important in helping to protect against osteoporosis and bone loss, but they are also beneficial for reducing the risk of breast cancer and increasing muscle mass.
- Consume foods high in magnesium and zinc
Aside from calcium, other minerals that are highly beneficial for building sturdy bones include magnesium and zinc. A daily intake of about 400g of magnesium helps to transform vitamin D into an active form that supports calcium absorption and promotes higher bone density, study finds. Zinc is only needed in trace amounts. It makes up of the mineral share of your bones, and helps promote the production of bone building cells and reduces the rate at which your bones may deteriorate. Beef, shrimp, spinach, flaxseeds, oysters and pumpkin seeds are all good sources of zinc, however, both zinc and magnesium can also be taken as dietary supplements.
- Maintain a healthy and stable weight
Maintaining a healthy weight can help support healthy bones. While being overweight can cause unnecessary stress on your bones from constantly supporting excess weight, low body weight is the main factor contributing to low bone density and increases the risk of developing osteopenia and osteoporosis in your later years. Yo-yoing between low and high weight too often, however, is shown to have the most detrimental effect on your bone health. This is because the bone density lost during weight loss is not reversed when you gain the weight back, which can put your bones under even more stress. So, maintaining a healthy, or even slightly higher, weight is your best option where long-term bone health is involved.