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," Misti Gueron, RDN, CDE, a Los Angeles-based medical nutrition therapist, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"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 Because of this, what you miss from your diet may be withdrawn from your bones," she says.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, 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, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.
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. From grapes to leafy vegetables and sodium to caffeine, here's a list of foods that you should incorporate into your daily routine (plus a few you should take away) to improve your bone health.
Foods That Are Great for Bone Health
When it comes to building bone strength, fish might not be the first food you think of; however, the tiny, under-appreciated sardine is a powerhouse of bone-building nutrition.
"Canned sardines contain small, edible bones that provide a calcium boost plus vitamin D for enhanced absorption," says Caroline Kaufman, RDN, a nutrition expert in New York City. A 3.75-ounce can of sardines has about 27 percent of your daily value of calcium and 22 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. In fact, eating omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish like sardines) is positively associated with peak bone mass density, an October 2017 study of young Japanese women (ages 19 to 25) published in Osteoporosis International shows.
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.
Recipe to try: Persimmon, Pistachio and Turnip Salad With Mustard Greens
2. Leafy Green Vegetables
While kale is the newest vegetable to steal the (nutritional) limelight, all leafy greens — bok choy, arugula, spinach, romaine, collard greens, watercress — are nutrient-dense and contain specific vitamins and minerals important for bone health.
"Most of us know that calcium and vitamin D are important for bone health, but bone formation relies heavily on an adequate balance of several important nutrients, including magnesium and vitamin K, which are both found in leafy green vegetables," says Gueron.
When it comes to magnesium, the majority of the mineral is found in your bones. In fact, magnesium could help prevent fractures, a July 2017 study in the European Journal of Epidemiology suggests. 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.
Recipe to try: Spinach and Feta Avocado Toast on Keto Bread
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, is packed with polyphenols that act as antioxidants in the body. These antioxidants help protect the body from heart, eye, memory and immune system problems, according to June 2008 research in the International Journal of Biomedical Science.
In addition, a clinical trial of postmenopausal women found that prunes may help reverse bone loss and preserve bone structure, reducing the risk of osteoporotic fracture, per the May 2017 Nutrients study.
What's so special about prunes for bone health? While the research is still unfolding, the nutrient content of prunes is quite impressive for your skeleton.
Prunes contain vitamin K, which helps to improve calcium balance and promotes bone mineralization. They also contain copper, which aids in bone structure, as well as boron and several polyphenols that may help with the regulation of bone-building and bone breakdown, according to American Bone Health. Enjoy prunes right out of the bag or add them whole, diced or pureed in your favorite recipes.
Recipe to try: Banana Breakfast Bars
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 nutrients for bone health, potassium and magnesium," says Cynthia Sass, RD.
"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 to being good for bone health, pulses are incredibly versatile — Sass says they're incorporated into nearly every type of cuisine around the globe and can be enjoyed in both savory and sweet dishes.
Not only are grapes good for your heart, but you may also experience their benefits in your bones. Grapes are a great source of vitamin K, a nutrient that has been shown to have a positive effect on bone mineral density and help decrease fracture risk, according to an October 2007 study in Nutrition and Clinical Practice.
In addition, a February 2015 animal study showed that grape products may improve calcium utilization and suppress bone turnover. In The Journal of Nutrition 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.
Read more: 19 High-Fiber Foods — Some May Surprise You!
While the researchers are not sure the exact mechanism at play, they believe grapes offer a unique nutrient profile for bone health, including vitamin K, fiber and polyphenols — special plant compounds found in every part — skin, flesh and seeds — and in all colors of grapes.
Recipe to try: The Goob Peanut Butter Toast With Greek Yogurt and Grapes
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, crunchy pepitas are brimming with good nutrition. Thanks to the zinc content (1 ounce of roasted pumpkin seeds provides 20 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 vital 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, according to a May 2010 study in Molecular and Cell Biochemistry. 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!
Read more: 6 Trader Joe's Pumpkin Products a Dietitian Loves
7. Whole Grains
You may know that whole grains are an important source of key nutrients for optimal health: fiber, magnesium, thiamine, phosphorous, protein, niacin, manganese and selenium, to name a few. But when it comes to bone health, one of these nutrients plays a key role.
"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, 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 a 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
If you're looking for a non-dairy source of bone-building calcium, chia seeds are a great choice. "One ounce of chia seeds (about two tablespoons) contains 17 percent of your daily value for calcium," says Kaufman. That's almost as much calcium as a glass of milk.
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.
Recipe to try: Chocolately Chia Cookies
Foods That Are Bad for Bone Health
Lowering salt intake isn't just important for your blood pressure, but 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, each additional gram of sodium eaten per day increases bone loss by 1 percent per year in adult women, a 2004 Bone Health and Osteoporosis report states. However, this may be counteracted with eating more calcium-rich foods.
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 eat may have an even bigger effect. Read your labels and look for products with 140 milligrams of sodium or less per serving," says Gueron.
Read more: 10 Effortless Ways to Finally Cut Down on Salt
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.
An October 2006 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. And researchers noted similar results for diet cola.
The best advice to maintain bone health: "Keep it in balance and don't make soda your regular fluid of choice," says Gueron.
When it comes to caffeine, we all love our coffee. For the most part, a cup or two a day is okay and may even boast some health benefits. However, too much of a good thing may be bad for your bones.
"For someone who already suffers from bone loss, an intake exceeding about 300 milligrams of caffeine may worsen the condition. That's about the amount in a 16-ounce coffee," says Gueron.
"Read nutrition labels, because caffeine also shows up in more than just coffee. Other sources of caffeine include teas, sodas, energy drinks, nutrition bars, cocoa, chocolate and breakfast cereals," says Gueron.
- MyFoodData: "Canned Sardines"
- Osteoporosis International: "Intake of Omega-3 Fatty Acids Contributes to Bone Mineral Density at the Hip in a Younger Japanese Female Population"
- European Journal of Epidemiology: "Low Serum Magnesium Levels Are Associated With Increased Risk of Fractures: a Long-Term Prospective Cohort Study"
- International Journal of Biomedical Science: "Free Radicals, Antioxidants in Disease and Health"
- American Bone Health: "Minerals for Bone Health"
- Nutrition and Clinical Practice: "Bone Health and Osteoporosis: the Role of Vitamin K and Potential Antagonism by Anticoagulants"
- The Journal of Nutrition: "A Grape-Enriched Diet Increases Bone Calcium Retention and Cortical Bone Properties in Ovariectomized Rats"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Facts for Roasted Squash and Pumpkin Seeds (Unsalted)"
- Molecular and Cell Biochemistry: "Role of Nutritional Zinc in the Prevention of Osteoporosis"
- Bone Health and Osteoporosis: "A Report of the Surgeon General"
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Colas, but Not Other Carbonated Beverages, Are Associated With Low Bone Mineral Density in Older Women: the Framingham Osteoporosis Study"