What You Need to Know to Prevent Osteoporosis
By Alysha Izoco, RD, LD
September 8, 2021
Several years ago, the mother of one of my friend’s broke her leg. This was a big fear for my friend and her mother because it can be very difficult to bounce back after a broken bone at her age. 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.
What set her up for weak bones and what could she have done to support her bones earlier in life?
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). According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, 44 million Americans have low bone density, putting them at an increased risk for breaking bones and developing osteoporosis during their lifetime.
Fats are Critical for Strong Bones
Why do Americans have such high rates of osteoporosis? Let’s start to answer that question by explaining why fats are so important to building healthy bones.
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.
Because my friend’s mother had heart disease, her doctor recommended a low-fat diet to prevent heart disease, but as you now see: a low-fat diet is not a bone-building diet.
My friend’s mother had not been eating butter or coconut oil (saturated fats) and wasn’t getting essential fats from fish oil or salmon. She, 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 bad 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 damaged fats, known as partially hydrogenated oils, found in coffee creamers, baked goods, margarines, fries and many other convenience foods. These bad 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. Pay attention to how much you might be getting and increase that amount if you are only getting only a few ounces of protein a day. It’s great to spread it out throughout the day, not just at dinner time! My friend’s mom only ate a few ounces of protein a day, filling herself with crackers and fruit instead.
How Sugar Negatively Impacts Bone Health
We’ve mentioned that this 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 of helping break down sugar. 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, pickle ball, 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, consistency, and building those strong bones. Although this mom had been active most of her life, her activity level had declined during the last couple years, so she wasn’t getting the benefit of her muscles supporting her bones.
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. Some doctors recommend taking Tums® (calcium carbonate) as a source of calcium. At Nutritional Weight & Wellness, we recommend that people opt for higher-quality forms of calcium, which we’ll share our favorites below.
- 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 Hydroxyapatite (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 we recommend to clients with osteopenia or osteoporosis is Key Osteo Plus. This supplement is really a twofer—a multivitamin and a bone-building supplement in one. Key Osteo Plus includes two forms of calcium for maximum absorption (calcium citrate and MCHC) along with the mineral strontium (1000 mg). Strontium is a mineral that stimulates bone growth and also prevents bone loss. Key Osteo Plus also includes vitamin D (1500IU), which is essential for absorption of calcium into the bone.
If you’re already taking a multivitamin, we recommend adding in Activated Calcium into your supplement routine if weak bones is a concern. This comes in a capsule form, a chewable chocolate flavored tablet, or as a calcium-magnesium combo for extra mineral support. All three of these contain a little vitamin D3 to help your body use the calcium for your bones.
Try This Bone-Building Plan
If my friend’s mother would have gotten different advice from her doctors and had access to a bone-building supplement, she might not have broken her leg. We’ll never know for sure, and there is no way to change the past, but what we 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, cabbage, berries, spinach). Bonus points for those foods that are naturally rich in calcium!
- 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 Key Osteo Plus if you have been diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis.
For more information about osteoporosis, check out these resources:
- Listen: Preventing Osteoporosis podcast
- Learn: The Magic of Minerals online class
- Read: Key Osteo Plus’ Bone Building Formula, What to Look for in a Collagen Supplement, and The Best and Worst Sources of Calcium
- Try: Bone support supplements – 15% off for the month of September
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.