What You Need to Know to Prevent Osteoporosis
By Kate Crosby, BS, CNP
August 19, 2016
In 2006, my mother broke her leg. She had just moved to an assisted living facility when she fell in her bathroom. In the emergency room, it was determined that her right femur was broken.
But how did this happen? Why did she fall? It was not the fall that caused her to break her leg. Usually a bone breaks and then the person falls. So taking a fall may mean she had weak bones.
What set her up for weak bones? Let’s look at dietary fats, proteins, sugar intake, exercise and supplements to explain her weak bones so you can learn how to prevent this from happening to you.
A Little Background on Osteoporosis
Here are the facts: In the U.S., 15 to 20 million people suffer from osteoporosis. One in three women will have problems with their bones and 10 percent of American women will suffer from osteoporosis. (Fallon, and Enig, PhD)
Why Fats are Critical for Strong Bones
Why do Americans have such high rates of osteoporosis? Let me start to answer that question by explaining why fats are so important to building healthy bones. Because my mother had heart disease, her doctor recommended a low fat diet to prevent heart disease, but you may be surprised to learn that a low fat diet is not a bone-building diet.
Fats are essential to building healthy bones. Saturated fats and the essential fatty acids omega-3 fish oil and borage oil (GLA) help build strong bones. According to Lorna Vanderhaeghe and Karlene Karst, authors of Healthy Fats for Life, both EPA/DHA (fish oil) and GLA boost calcium absorption and increase calcium deposition in the bone. (Vanderhaeghe and Karst 144) Fish oil also helps you absorb vitamin D and creates a collagen mesh in the bone. Fats are critical for your body to make the mesh. Some of those fats should be saturated fats (butter, heavy cream, eggs, coconut oil). “For calcium to be effectively incorporated into bone, at least fifty percent of the fats must be saturated.” (Fallon, and Enig, PhD) The important bone-building minerals calcium, magnesium, and strontium attach to the collagen mesh resulting in strong bones.
I know my mother had not been eating butter or coconut oil (saturated fats) and wasn’t getting essential fats from fish oil or salmon. She had heart disease and like many Americans, was schooled in following a low fat diet that consisted of canned soup, chocolate, cookies, juice and toast. Her breakfast would include a poached egg on toast, but she gave the healthy fat-filled yolk to her dog. Her toast was white bread spread with margarine and jam. She drank orange juice and coffee with sugar. She thought she was eating a healthy breakfast, but what she really ate for breakfast was sugar—sugar in the toast, the jam and the orange juice. There was very little protein in her breakfast, and the fat she ate was a damaged fat—the trans fat found in margarine. No wonder her bones were thin and fragile. And with many Americans following a low fat eating plan like hers, it’s not surprising that so many people are diagnosed with osteoporosis.
To create strong, healthy bones, meals and snacks should contain fats. Include fats like olives, butter, nuts, seeds, avocados, salmon and sardines. Stay away from the trans fats, known as partially hydrogenated oils, found in coffee creamers, baked goods, margarines, fries and many other convenience foods. These trans fats prevent calcium from attaching to the collagen fatty mesh.
Protein, Another Essential Piece for Bone Health
Not only do you need to eat healthy fats, you also need an adequate supply of protein to make the collagen in bones (healthy fats contribute to collagen as well). The collagen allows bones to be somewhat flexible, but also resistant to tearing and breaking. You probably already know that calcium is important for bones, but without protein your bones would resemble eggshells—fragile and easy to crumble. Without collagen (supplied from protein), the calcium and other minerals cannot combine to form bone. Collagen gets the calcium to stick to the bone. It is like the mortar of a brick and mortar structure. Without the collagen and its fatty layer, the minerals would be like a pile of bricks, but not a wall.
How much protein do you need to eat? Eating two to four ounces every three hours will help build bone. My mother probably ate only a few ounces of protein a day, filling herself with crackers and fruit instead.
How Sugar Negatively Impacts Bone Health
I mentioned that my mother’s diet was full of sugar. How did that affect her bones? Well, your body breaks down sugar (whether it comes from carbohydrates in bread or ice cream) with the help of minerals like calcium, magnesium and phosphorus. These minerals are often pulled from bones for this purpose. Many Americans eat diets full of high-sugar carbohydrates like sodas, cereals, breads, pasta, cakes, cookies and large servings of potatoes that deplete their bones of calcium, magnesium and strontium. The more sugar in your diet, the more your bone density decreases. Remember, vegetables and fruit are carbs, too. Reach for healthy carbs like these instead of refined options.
Exercise Your Way to Stronger Bones
While diet is very important for building healthy, strong bones so is exercise. When you use your muscles, they pull on your bones making them stronger. Bones are maintained, in part, by the muscle forces applied to them. Jane Brody tells us that bones respond better to exercise that involves forceful contractions, occurring in stops and starts. Playing tennis, weight training, using kettle bells and jumping rope are all good bone-building exercises. The Nurses’ Study found that walking at least four hours a week decreased the risk of hip fractures. (Brody) So get up out of your chair. Move, walk, dance or hike. Choosing an activity that you will do and enjoy is key to compliance. Although my mother had been active most of her life, her activity level declined during her last five years.
Quality Supplements Can Help
While eating a diet full of vegetables, healthy fats, and protein and incorporating exercise into your lifestyle will create a solid foundation for building healthy bones, a quality calcium supplement can also help. Let’s look at three common forms of calcium so you can decide which is best for you.
- Calcium Carbonate is a cheap, ineffective form of calcium. Only 10 percent or less is absorbed into the body. My mother’s doctor recommended she take Tums® (calcium carbonate) as a source of calcium for her. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we recommend that people opt for higher-quality forms of calcium.
- Calcium Citrate is an easy-to-find, absorbable form of calcium. Your body uses about 50 percent of this form of calcium, and it’s a good option for women who do not have osteopenia or osteoporosis.
- Microcrystalline Hydoxyapatite (MCHC) is the most absorbable form of calcium. It is derived from whole veal bone and is identical to human bones. MCHC is recommended for someone who has developed osteopenia or osteoporosis. It is highly absorbable and is a real winner for building bone.
A favorite bone-building supplement I recommend to clients with osteopenia or osteoporosis is Pro Bono. This supplement is really a twofer—a multivitamin and a bone-building supplement in one. Pro Bono includes the MCHC form of calcium along with the mineral strontium (1000 mg). Strontium is a mineral that stimulates bone growth and also prevents bone loss. Pro Bono also includes vitamin D (1000IU), which is essential for absorption of calcium into the bone.
Try This Bone-Building Plan
I believe if my mom would have gotten different advice from her doctors and had access to a bone-building supplement that she likely wouldn’t have broken her leg. I’ll never know for sure, and there is no way to change the past. What I do know is there are steps we can all take to build stronger bones and prevent a break like she had. Take some of these steps and start improving your bone health:
- Eat quality fats (butter, olive oil, coconut oil, raw nuts and seeds, avocadoes, butter) and protein (eggs, chicken, beef, salmon). Remember, fats and protein are necessary for bones.
- Eliminate the sugars from your diet. They use up calcium when metabolized. Instead of high-sugar carbs, go for healthy vegetable carbs (kale, green beans, peppers, cabbages).
- Exercise to stimulate bone growth. Play tennis, dance or walk. There are so many things to try. Find something you enjoy so you can stick with it!
- Take a quality calcium supplement like calcium citrate or MCHC to be sure you are getting an adequate supply of calcium. Consider Pro Bono if you have been diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis.
For more information about osteoporosis, listen to our podcast: Solutions to Prevent Osteoporosis.
Fallon, Sally, and Mary G. Enig, PhD. "Dem Bones: Do High Protein Diets Cause Bone Loss?." The Weston A. Price Foundation. N.p., 01 Jan 2000. Web. 9 Aug 2013..
Vanderhaeghe, Lorna R., and Karlene Karst. Healthy Fats for Life: Preventing and Treating Common Health Problems with Essential Fatty Acids. 2nd ed. Wiley, 2004. 144. Print.
Fallon, Sally, and Mary G. Enig, PhD. "The Skinny on Fats." The Weston A. Price Foundation. N.p., 01 Jan 2000. Web. 14 Aug 2013..
Brody, Jane E.. "Building Up Bones, With a Little Bashing." The New York Times. N.p., 12 Aug 2013. Web. 14 Aug 2013. .