Bones are your body’s lifelong support system, so it’s important to keep them happy and strong. Your bones literally hold you up, protect your vital organs, provide your muscles something to hold on to and store essential minerals for when your body needs them most.
"Bone is a living matrix full of nutrients, so the mistake we’ve made for decades is to promote one nutrient (calcium) as responsible for bone health."
Ashley Koff, RD
Building Bone Density
It’s easy to think of bones as inert, but they are living, growing tissue that’s in a constant state of breakdown and rebuilding. Before about the age of 30, it’s important to focus on building bone density. After 30, the body loses more bone than it forms. Women are more affected than men, but one in four men older than 50 will suffer a break due to weak bones. At any age, male or female, there are foods you should eat to protect and strengthen your bones.
These days, everyone knows that calcium is good for bones (and it certainly is), but you might be surprised to know how many different nutrients in foods can help build strong bones. Ashley Koff, registered dietitian for Earthbound Farm, says, “Bone is a living matrix full of nutrients, so the mistake we’ve made for decades is to promote one nutrient (calcium) as responsible for bone health.” Below are five foods that look beyond calcium for strong bones. They’re tasty and good for overall health too.
Dried Plums to Reverse Bone Loss
A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that dried plums can reverse bone loss and increase bone density to help prevent fractures and osteoporosis. Lauren Graf, registered dietitian at the Cardiac Wellness Program at Montefiore Health System, adds, “Prunes are high in antioxidants, specifically polyphenols. Researchers speculate that the high antioxidant content may protect bone. Prunes are also high in vitamin K, which can improve calcium balance.”
Try adding chopped prunes and almonds on top of creamy, calcium-rich Icelandic yogurt. Or add prunes into a red quinoa salad with chopped asparagus, orange segments, pistachios and olive oil. For an easy Mediterranean-inspired dish, brush whole-grain flatbread with olive oil and top with chopped prunes, thin slices of lemon and red onions, then sprinkle with feta cheese.
Sardines to Slow Bone Loss
Emerging research suggests omega-3 fats, such as those found in fish like sardines and salmon, may slow down bone loss. More research is needed in the area of fats and bone health, but what we do know is that sardines are also rich in bone-building vitamin D, a nutrient that can be hard to find in foods. Bone-in sardines are also a surprising source of calcium (the bones are thin and edible). Sardines are also a good source of phosphorus, a mineral that strengthens the structure of bones. As an added bonus, sardines are a sustainable seafood choice and an affordable protein.
Try flaking canned sardines into pieces, mix with your favorite vinaigrette, herbs and spices, then place on top of cucumber slices for an easy appetizer. If you prefer stealth-health, mash sardines into your next tomato sauce for a savory pasta dish that won’t taste too fishy.
Red Grapefruit for Vitamin C
Collagen is 90 percent of the organic bone matrix that stores minerals, and healthy collagen formation requires vitamin C. The body doesn’t create or store vitamin C, so it’s essential to get it in the diet. A medium red grapefruit takes care of 120 percent of the body’s daily vitamin C needs. Red grapefruit — but not white — also has the antioxidant lycopene and tends to be much sweeter (though still pleasantly tangy).
Grapefruit can be enjoyed halved and topped with granola for breakfast or broiled with a touch of honey for a healthy dessert with complex flavors. Grapefruit segments are also large enough to make them easy to peel (or supreme) and add to kale or quinoa salads. Other foods high in vitamin C are Brussels sprouts, broccoli, strawberries, papaya, pineapple, sweet peppers, oranges, mandarins, lemons and limes.
Nuts for Essential Nutrients
Nuts are small but mighty, and they pack a ton of nutrition into a small package, including many nutrients essential for strong bones. Almonds are an excellent source of bone-strengthening magnesium (20 percent DV), a nutrient that primarily resides in the body’s bones (50 to 60 percent). Almonds are also the only nuts to provide an appreciable amount of calcium (8 percent DV). Pistachios are another good source of magnesium, but are also the nut highest in potassium and vitamin B-6.
Multiple studies have found that good potassium intake is linked to better bone mineral density, and B-6 helps to control levels of homocysteine, a compound linked to weak bones. All nuts provide some heart-healthy unsaturated fats (walnuts uniquely provide plant-based omega-3s) and have been linked to longevity and good health.
One of the easiest ways to incorporate nuts into your day is as a midmorning snack. Try a handful of nuts with a piece of fresh fruit or a make-ahead trail mix with your favorite nuts and no-sugar-added dried fruit. Nuts also make a delicious low-carb crust for fish.
Spinach for Vitamin K
Vitamin K helps build bone, and not having enough has been linked to low bone density. Observational research suggests getting enough vitamin K may reduce the risk of hip fracture and improve bone density. Spinach is a vitamin K rock star, with a half-cup of cooked spinach providing about 500 percent of the daily recommended intake. Spinach also happens to be a plant-based source of calcium, but as Koff points out, “Foods little known for bone health like organic spinach don’t contain just calcium — spinach also has magnesium, vitamin K, vitamin C and phytonutrients. Nature blended minerals and nutrients together in food to deliver bone health.”
Koff recommends building a salad with a blend of organic baby spinach and arugula, topping it with hemp hearts and making a dressing from lemon, olive oil and sesame seeds.