Bones are an incredible part of the human anatomy, but have you ever taken the time to think about how the foods you eat affect their health? Because of the strong, constant nature of bones, it’s easy to take your skeletal structure for granted.
“Your bones are alive. Every day, your body breaks down old bone and puts new bone in its place," explains Misti Gueron M.S., RDN, CDE, a Los Angeles-based medical nutrition therapist. "Your bones hold your largest reservoir of calcium, and your blood also requires calcium to regulate muscle contraction. Because of this, what you miss from your diet may be withdrawn from your bones,” she says.
Many people reach their peak bone mass around age 30 — and after that number is achieved, you lose slightly more bone mass than you gain each year. The higher your peak bone mass is, the less likely you are to develop osteoporosis as you age. Whatever your age, making a few dietary changes can improve your overall bone health and enhance your skeletal structure for the rest of your life.
8 Foods That Are Great for Bone Health
1. Canned sardines
“Canned sardines contain small, edible bones that provide a calcium boost, plus vitamin D for enhanced absorption," says Caroline Kaufman, M.S., RDN, a nutrition expert in New York City. "A 2-ounce serving of sardines has about 20 percent of your daily value of calcium and 26 percent of your daily value of vitamin D.”
In addition to the synergistic effect of calcium and vitamin D for optimal bone health, the healthy fats in sardines may also benefit your bones. A study of young Japanese women (ages 19 to 25) published in Osteoporosis International showed that intake of omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish like sardines) is positively associated with peak bone mass density.
Kaufman recommends trying sardines on an open-faced rye bread sandwich with spicy mustard and a spritz of fresh lemon juice and chopped tomato, or simply spread fork-mashed sardines on whole grain crackers.
2. Leafy green vegetables
When it comes to magnesium, the majority (67 percent) of the mineral is found in your bones. In fact, a study in the European Journal of Epidemiology suggests magnesium could help prevent fractures. Next time you’re making a salad, sandwich, or stir-fry, be sure to go heavy on the leafy greens — your bones will thank you.
Purple is a color long associated with royalty and magic, so it should be no surprise that purple food provides some pretty hefty health benefits. Purple produce, like prunes, are packed with polyphenols that act as antioxidants in the body. These antioxidants help protect the body from heart, eye, memory, and immune system problems.
In addition, a clinical trial — published in the journal Nutrients in 2017 — with post-menopausal woman found that California prunes may help reverse bone loss and preserve bone structure, reducing the risk of osteoporotic fracture. What’s so special about prunes for bone health? While the research is still unfolding, the nutrient content of prunes is quite impressive for bone health.
Prunes contain copper, which aids in bone structure; vitamin K, which helps to improve calcium balance and promotes bone mineralization; plus boron and several polyphenols that help with the regulation of bone building and bone breakdown. Enjoy prunes right out of the bag or add them whole, diced or pureed in your favorite recipes.
You may have heard that beans are good for you, but what the heck are pulses? Pulses are part of the legume family, but the term “pulse” refers only to the dried seed. Dry peas, edible beans, lentils and chickpeas are the most common types of pulses. In addition to providing plant protein, fiber, and antioxidants, pulses provide key minerals for healthy bones including calcium, magnesium, and manganese.
“Research shows that people who eat more pulses have higher overall nutrient intakes, including of note to bone health, potassium and magnesium” says Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., RD, author of "Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches With Pulses – The New Superfood."
“I recommend eating a half cup of pulses daily, but if that’s not practical, aim for a half cup three times a week. Eat them in place of meat in a plant-based meal, or as a starch alternative in a meal that also includes animal protein, like a salad with salmon and white beans, or an omelet served over a bed of lentils,” suggests Sass.
In addition, an animal study published in The Journal of Nutrition showed that consumption of grape products may improve calcium utilization and suppress bone turnover. In the study, animals prone to osteoporosis were fed a 25-percent freeze-dried grape powder or a control diet for an eight-week period while monitoring calcium balance. The animals fed the grape-enriched diet had 44 percent more net bone calcium retention than those being fed the control diet.
6. Pumpkin seeds
Pumpkins are not only a mainstay for Halloween; their delicious seeds will help keep your skeleton not so spooky. A source of healthy fats, iron, magnesium, and zinc, these crunchy “pepitas” are brimming with good nutrition. Thanks to the zinc content (1/4 cup of roasted pumpkin seeds provides 19 percent of your daily value of zinc), these seeds are a smart food to ensure your bones stay strong and healthy.
While it’s true that calcium is a main component of bone health, zinc can’t be overlooked; this mineral is needed to produce the matrix of collagen protein threads that's important for bone mineralization. In addition, zinc is essential for bone healing, and low levels in the body have been closely linked with osteoporosis. Enjoy a handful of pumpkin seeds as a snack or add them to salads, soups, or casseroles for some bone-healthy nutrition (and plenty of crunch!).
7. Whole grains
“It is the magnesium in this list that is essential for bone health. About 60 percent of magnesium in our bodies is held in our bones, and it has been shown that increased intake of magnesium improves bone density in some patients,” says Sylvia Klinger, M.S., RDN, founder of Hispanic Foods Communications and Advisory Board Member for the Grains Food Foundation.
Although some grains may have higher nutrient density, all grains provide a variety of nutrients. Klinger suggests if you are looking for variety of delicious flavors and textures, try experimenting with the now “trendy” ancient grains. “You might be surprised to know that amaranth, quinoa, freekeh and teff are some of the ancient grains that, when combined with other foods, can help strengthen your bones,” says Klinger.
8. Chia seeds
Plus, chia seeds are a good source of protein, healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants for good health. “You can sprinkle them on salads like flaxseeds, or stir them into liquid like a smoothie, oatmeal, or yogurt. Mix them with a liquid like almond milk to create chia pudding, a wholesome base for a healthy breakfast topped with fresh fruit, nuts, coconut flakes, and warming spices like cinnamon or ginger,” suggests Kaufman.
3 Foods That Are Bad for Bone Health
Lowering salt intake isn’t just important for your blood pressure; it’s good for your bones, too. Sodium affects calcium balance by increasing its excretion, and high-salt diets are all too common in the United States. In fact, research has found that postmenopausal women with a high salt diet lose more bone than other women of the same age.
According to Gueron, experts believe it is the salt content of the typical American diet that warrants the high calcium recommendations made to combat these effects.
“Getting rid of the salt shaker at the table is one start, but reducing the amount of processed foods you consume may have an even bigger impact. Read your labels and look for products with 140mg if sodium or less per serving,” says Gueron.
When it comes to soda, you probably already know it’s not the healthiest choice — but the reasons may be different than you think. “Many of these sparkly beverages, often colas, contain high amounts of phosphorus, which, with a low calcium diet, can cause excess calcium excretion and put your bones at risk,” says Gueron.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that colas, but not other carbonated beverages, are associated with low bone mineral density in older women. In addition, the researchers found that total phosphorus intake was not significantly higher in daily cola consumers than in non-consumers; however, the calcium-to-phosphorus ratios were lower. The best advice to maintain bone health: “Keep it in balance and don’t make soda your regular fluid of choice,” says Gueron.
“For someone who already suffers from bone loss, an intake exceeding about 300mg of caffeine may worsen the condition. That’s about the amount in a 16-ounce coffee,” says Gueron.
It's true that as people increase their caffeine consumption, calcium in their urine increases too — though experts say for people getting adequate calcium in their diet, excess caffeine intake is less of a concern. Still, in addition to making sure you get enough calcium in your diet, being aware of your caffeine intake is a good idea.