Foods That Help Osteoporosis
By Carolyn Suerth Hudson, RDN, LD
July 4, 2023
What is Osteoporosis?
Osteoporosis, defined as low bone density and fragile bones, is considered a “silent disease” because it’s hard to notice any symptoms of the internal problem until a bone breaks. According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, one in three women and one in five men over the age of 50 will suffer a broken bone due to osteoporosis. A sobering statistic! There are more days in a hospital stay for women over 45 due to an osteoporotic fracture than many other diseases, including diabetes, heart attack, and breast cancer (1).
Now that we have your attention, we have some good news. There are doable steps you can take at any age to prevent osteoporosis and strengthen your bones with a bone-healthy diet, key supplements, and lifestyle changes. You can start right now!
What Makes Up A Bone?
Before we talk about how to support bone health, let’s talk about what makes up each of the bones in your body. It might surprise you to learn, bones are a living tissue. In fact, bone is one of the most active tissues in the body, constantly breaking down and rebuilding in a process called remodeling.
The hard outer layer of a bone is made up of minerals – about half calcium and a third phosphorus (that blend together to form hydroxyapatite), and the rest of the outer mineral layer is a mixture of trace minerals including magnesium, silicon, iron, zinc, copper, boron, selenium, and manganese. These minerals are held together by an inner meshy layer made up of collagen and healthy fat (2).
As you can see from the makeup of the actual bone structure, in order for that remodeling to happen, you need to intake minerals, proteins, and fats to make up the structure of the bones. If we’re not eating the foods that support our bones, we could be setting ourselves up for painful years ahead. There are many factors that help or hinder our ability to keep our bones strong, so let’s look at some of these things.
Are You at Risk for Developing Osteoporosis?
Research has found that the following factors put you at greater risk:
- Drinking more than one soda a week
- Smoking cigarettes
- Eating a low fat and/or low calorie diet
- Taking medications such as seizure meds, acid reflux meds, chemotherapy, or many antidepressants
- Eating a diet high in sugar
The positive news is that many of the factors listed here are lifestyle habits we can begin to change. If you’re someone who needs to take any of these medications, there are bone-building solutions to help you slow or prevent the risk of bone density loss.
A Note On Aging
When we are younger, our bodies are breaking down and rebuilding bone at a high rate. The building cycle outpaces the breaking down cycle and peak bone density occurs in our late 20s. It is crucial in the younger years to lay a good foundation by avoiding sugar and intaking high-quality nutrients and minerals. If you have young people in your life, now is a great time to help them focus on this rather than waiting until later in life!
The bone building cycle naturally slows down in our 30s, but again, the good news is that bone building can still be stimulated at any age by getting minerals, protein, healthy fat, and exercise. Aging does not have to mean bone loss if you keep giving your body what it needs to build bone: the right mix of nutrients and weight-bearing exercise for stimulating bone growth.
What Foods Keep Bones Healthy?
A study published by the National Institute of Public Health by researchers at Warsaw University found women suffering from osteoporosis consumed significantly lower amounts of fat, protein, and calcium. Since we’ve all heard that calcium is important for healthy bones, it is often the first thing people think of when wanting to create strong bones. But just as important are vitamin D, vitamin K, minerals, protein, and fat. If we only focus on calcium, we are only adding the nutrients needed for the outside structure of the bone and we need that meshy inside layer to be both dense and supple to prevent fractures. If the bone is merely hard it could still fracture easily if the inside of the bone is hollow and inflexible.
Clinically, we have also found that many women who have osteoporosis or osteopenia (which is low bone density but to a lesser degree than osteoporosis) have been on a low fat, low calorie diet in hopes of managing their weight. They eat a small breakfast, skip lunch and snacks, and usually have a normal dinner with family. But they are still not eating sufficient protein, vegetables, and good fat to support bone health.
Protein – This macronutrient is important to build the collagen rod in the bones, which supports the bone structure. Eating sufficient protein is critical to having strong and healthy bones. We recommend 4-5 ounces at meals and 2-3 ounces at each snack. Some great sources of protein could be chicken, steak, eggs, ground beef, salmon, nitrate-free deli meat, cottage cheese, and a high-quality protein powder.
Fat – As mentioned, bone is a living tissue that requires dietary fat to which minerals (such as calcium, magnesium and zinc) attach to build strong, healthy bones. Olive oil, olives, butter, coconut oil, nuts, and nut butters are good fat choices.
Vegetables – Our mothers said that we needed to eat our vegetables, and they were right. We get vitamins and antioxidants from vegetables that prevent free radical damage in our cells, including the cells in our bones. We encourage our clients to eat a variety of vegetables at least three times a day, cooked or raw. Broccoli, asparagus, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, cucumbers, and the list goes on!
Changing your nutrition can be overwhelming, so let’s start with this sample menu for a day of bone-building foods:
- Breakfast – Crustless Spinach Quiche
- Lunch – Salmon Salad
- Snack – Peaches & Cream Smoothie
- Dinner – Chicken Wild Rice Soup
What Supplements Keep Bones Healthy?
As you get your protein and fat from real foods to help the process of remodeling, you’ll want to focus on getting those key minerals of vitamin D, vitamin K, and calcium. Food contains these important minerals, but if you already have osteoporosis or osteopenia and want to start to rebuild and strengthen your bones, we highly recommend adding bone-building supplements into your real food plan as well. Let’s walk through a few of your options:
There are so many forms of calcium on the market that it can feel overwhelming to choose one. Calcium carbonate is the most available form of calcium that you’ll find in big box store products, but it is hard to absorb and is not incorporated into your bones. Avoid this form altogether.
Calcium malate, citrate, and glycinate are better forms and can be used for bone material. All three of these can be found in NutriKey Activated Calcium. Taking several different kinds of calcium helps with absorption since they have different binding sites. The body distributes the calcium across several sites rather than overtaxing one absorption site.
Calcium as hydroxyapatite (sometimes shows as MCHC on the label – microcrystalline hydroxyapatite calcium) is newer to the market and is the direct material that your bones are made of (calcium/phosphorous blend), so your body has to do less work to incorporate this into your bone structure. This type of calcium is available in NutriKey Key Osteo Plus and NutriKey Activated Cal-Mag.
Key Osteo Plus is a good option because it’s a calcium supplement but also includes the minerals and other nutrients needed for bone formation, so you don’t have to buy them all separately and figure out the doses. We’ve done that research for you, and even separated it into convenient AM and PM packets so you are getting the right nutrients at the right time of day.
Vitamin D3 With K2
As we age, we have fewer vitamin D3 receptors, which is crucial because vitamin D3 acts like a key to open the receptors for bones to absorb calcium. So, when we have fewer receptors, we absorb less calcium. In his book The Vitamin D Solution, Dr. Michael Holik recommends 4000-5000 IU of vitamin D3 daily to prevent chronic diseases like osteoporosis.
Vitamin K2 helps disperse the calcium we absorb and sends it to the bones. Vitamin K2 can be found in dark leafy green veggies or taken as a supplement. Because these two have a synergistic relationship with each other, NutriKey has a Vitamin D3 With K2 to make it easy for you.
For Extra Support
Remember the different layers of the bones we mentioned earlier? The inner meshy layer of bone is made up of collagen and fat. Just like with the minerals, you can supplement with collagen to help create that important inner layer. Key Collagen is a high quality collagen product that includes a peptide called Fortibone, which will go directly into your bones so your body doesn’t have to synthesize it. For the ultimate bone support combo, we recommend pairing Key Osteo Plus to support the hard exterior bone layer and Key Collagen to support the meshy inner layer.
A Note on Exercise & Sleep
Exercise and sleep are both lifestyle habits that help build bone density.
As the muscles pull against the bone, it triggers the bones to increase in density to support the muscles. For this reason, weightlifting and weight-bearing exercises are great for stimulating bone growth.
Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity a day. If cardio or heavy workouts are a problem, even just walking or stamping your feet can trigger the bones to increase in density. Anything you can do to put pressure on those bones will stimulate the bone building cycle at any age.
Sleep is also an important aspect of bone building. Melatonin, which you produce at night, triggers the cellular activities that lead to bone and tooth formation. When you are getting adequate sleep, your body has time to focus on tissue and bone repair (3).
Recap For Healthy Bones
You can begin focusing on bone-building habits today to help support the health of your bones. Eliminate the sugar and processed carbohydrates in favor of whole foods. Build your meals and snacks around animal protein, healthy fat, and vegetable carbohydrates with some fruit to give your body the building materials it needs to support your bones. Incorporate some supplements into your plan for extra minerals and find ways to get in some movement and quality sleep.
For immediate help, depending on your health history or lifestyle habits, you may benefit from an individual consultation. Our nutritionists and dietitians can look at your unique needs and customize a bone-building plan with you.
For more information on bone health, check out these resources:
- Read: Are You (Unknowingly) Weakening Your Bones?
- Listen: Osteoporosis & Real Food: NWW Client Success Stories
- Listen: All About Calcium – Ask A Nutritionist
- Learn: Preventing Osteoporosis with Bone-Building Foods online class
- International Osteoporosis Association - https://www.osteoporosis.foundation/patients/about-osteoporosis