Ageing unfortunately can’t be avoided and it brings with it a range of health problems; deterioration in the circulation paves the way towards heart disease, stroke and impotence, changes in body cells increase the likelihood of cancer and as a result of wear and tear changes to the joints and bones occur. After the age of fifty half of all women and a quarter of men in the United States can expect to experience a fracture related to osteoporosis. Fractures to the wrist, hip and spine not only limit mobility, but also impair quality of life. However, osteoporosis is not inevitable, as there are a range of dietary changes that we can make to maximize the strength of our bones. While we can derive most benefit if we implement these during childhood and adolescence, no matter how old we are, lifestyle changes can still help to promote bone health. It is a well known fact that calcium is an integral part of our bones, so it is essential to ensure an adequate intake of this, but a number of other nutrients also play an important role in maintaining bone strength.
The recommended calcium intake for adults in the United States is dependent on age, but for adults until the age of 70 in men and 50 in women, the daily requirement is 1000mg. This rises to 1200mg for older men and women. Dairy foods are amongst the richest sources of calcium, with a cup of low fat milk containing around 300mg, an ounce of cheese about 200mg and a 6oz pot of yogurt around 330mg. For anyone who uses plant-based alternatives to dairy, such as soya, rice or oat milk, these are often fortified with similar levels of calcium to that naturally occurring in cow’s milk. However, always check the label, as not all brands are fortified. Other sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, dried fruit, pulses and tinned fish with bones such as sardines, salmon and pilchards, though the aforementioned plant sources are significantly lower in calcium than dairy produce and it would therefore be difficult to obtain sufficient calcium from these alone. In these instances a calcium supplement would be advisable to prevent deficiency and likely future fractures. Your doctor can advise on the most appropriate calcium supplement, which you can either purchase over the counter at the pharmacy or they can provide you with a prescription. However, as well as considering your calcium intake, it is important not to forget about those dietary factors which can influence calcium levels in the body. For example, caffeine has been shown to hinder calcium absorption from the gut, phosphoric acid found in fizzy drinks may increase calcium losses from bones and excess salt may increase calcium losses in urine.
This vitamin is needed to aid the body’s absorption of calcium. While we make Vitamin D when our skin is in contact with sunlight, many people are unable to produce sufficient to meet the recommended requirement of 600-800IU daily. We are at risk of deficiency if we live further north, spend little time outdoors or cover up outside, have darker skin, use sunscreen and as we age our bodies become less efficient at generating Vitamin D. However, there are a number of dietary sources of Vitamin D. Oily fish such as salmon and sardines, as well as egg yolks are naturally rich in Vitamin D, while foods such as milk, margarine and breakfast cereals are also fortified with the vitamin. Despite these food sources, it would still be difficult to meet our full Vitamin D requirement solely from our diet. It is recommended that the under fives, pregnant and breastfeeding women, older adults and anyone with little sun exposure takes a Vitamin D supplement.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Not only do these essential fatty acids have a role in maintaining healthy circulation, helping to prevent its related problems such as coronary heart disease and erectile dysfunction, but they also appear to be important for the absorption and processing of calcium by the body. Whilst oily fish are the main source of omega-3 fatty acids, vegetarians can obtain a form of these fatty acids from green leafy vegetables, walnuts, linseeds and their oils; though admittedly they are present in smaller amounts and are not as efficiently converted. Oily fish should either be eaten weekly, or these plant sources of omega-3 included in the diet daily; anyone unable to do so, should consider an omega-3 supplement.
These act in a similar way to the hormone estrogen – which maintains bone strength in women until levels fall during the menopause – so may help to prevent bone loss if included in the diet regularly. The main dietary sources of phytoestrogens are soya, linseeds, lentils and chickpeas. Lower rates of osteoporosis are seen in China and Japan despite their lower intake of dairy produce, which is thought to relate to their higher intake of phytoestrogens. However, further research is required to confirm the link between phytoestrogens and bone health. That said, as they have been shown to reduce menopausal symptoms and have a positive impact on cholesterol levels, they are a useful inclusion in the diet regardless.
Fruit and vegetables
Although fruit and vegetables have long been advocated as part of a healthy diet and are linked to a reduced risk of circulatory diseases and cancers, they are also rich in a range of vitamins and minerals that have been shown to have a role in maintaining bone strength. Vitamin C – particularly high levels of which are found in citrus fruits, berries, kiwis, peppers, tomatoes and green vegetables – and B vitamins – found in a wide range of fruit and vegetables – are needed for collagen synthesis, which is one of the proteins that make up the matrix in bone. Vitamin K also plays a role in the formation of bone-related proteins and green leafy vegetables are a rich source of this vitamin. Potassium is abundant in all fruit and vegetables, though is found in especially high amounts in bananas, tomatoes, spinach and sweet potatoes, and helps to reduce urine losses of calcium. Meanwhile magnesium helps the body to process calcium and vitamin D and is found in the greatest amounts in green leafy vegetables.
While there are some risk factors for osteoporosis that you can’t control, such as a family history of the disease and having a small frame size, including more of those foods in your diet that are known to protect against osteoporosis is a positive step to reducing your risk of developing this debilitating condition.