There is much that we can do to build strong bones – including paying attention to diet, exercise and our lifestyle choices – and the earlier we start, the better.
‘People tend to focus on their bones as they pass the age of 50 but it is really important to start thinking about them when you are young,’ emphasises state-registered dietician Luci Daniels. ‘You reach peak bone density in your mid- to late-twenties and the stronger your bones are at that point, the less likely you are to suffer from osteoporosis in later years.’
So, what exactly can you do to boost your bone health? Probably more than you’d imagine…
Food for thought
‘Healthy bones need a well-balanced diet, incorporating minerals and vitamins and protein from a range of different food groups including fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates, dairy products, meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds,’ advises Louise Hart of the National Osteoporosis Society (NOS). Government recommendations state that the average adult should eat about 700mg of calcium a day.
Dairy products are the richest source of calcium. ‘Two or three servings per day of dairy products such as a 200ml glass of milk, a 25g piece of hard cheese and a pot of yoghurt will give you the calcium you need,’ says Luci. ‘Skimmed milk is slightly higher in calcium than full fat.’
Those who do not eat dairy products can obtain calcium from bony fish, dried fruit and leafy vegetables but it involves more effort. ‘You would need to eat around 280g of dried apricots or 340g of broccoli to get the calcium you find in a glass of milk,’ says Dr Peter Selby, a consultant physician specialising in bone disease at the Manchester Royal Infirmary. He is dismissive of recent stories suggesting that milk leaches calcium from bones. ‘There is clinical evidence to suggest that this is not the case,’ he says.
Vitamin D is also essential for bone health, as low levels can lead to calcium being released into the bloodstream from the bones. We obtain most of our vitamin D from sunlight. ‘By exposing your face, hands and forearms to the sun – without burning – for 20 minutes, three times a week at times when your shadow is shorter than your height (between 10am and 3pm), you will get enough of the right rays to make sufficient vitamin D to see you through the year,’ advises Dr Selby. Sun protection factors above eight block our ability to make vitamin D.
Some evidence suggests that a high intake of caffeine and salt can increase the amount of calcium lost in urine. There is also concern that phosphoric acid used in fizzy drinks may leach calcium from bones. So if you are at an increased risk of osteoporosis, it may be sensible to limit your intake of these foodstuffs.
Who needs supplements?
Most adults do not need to take vitamin and mineral tablets for their bones unless they have too little calcium in their diet or insufficient exposure to sunlight. However, explains Louise, we absorb minerals less efficiently as we get older and some older people may benefit from a dietary supplement. Patients on osteoporosis medication may be prescribed a calcium and vitamin D supplement but if not, ask your GP for advice.