Building bones with nutrition

More than calcium (photo: woodleywonderworks via Flickr)

Aging should come with a side-effects warning label:

  • weight gain
  • lower metabolism
  • less energy and stamina
  • more chronic disease
  • failing vision
  • thinning bones

Well, actually none of this is inevitable.  Much of it depends on whether or not you’ve been eating a good diet and staying active.  Bone strength is no exception, despite what those kindly drug ads may imply.  If you spent 30-40 years neglecting your bones, it’s not too late to give them some nutritional help, as long as you do it the right way.

Most people think of bones as solid blocks of calcium, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Bones are dynamic living tissues, exchanging nutrients in and out of blood every minute of the day.  For example, calcium is required for many other metabolic systems, such as muscle contraction.  If you have a chronically low calcium intake, calcium will be “borrowed” from bone to keep blood calcium in the correct range.  Over time, if you don’t replace the borrowed calcium, your bones gradually become thinner.

People with thinning bones are typically told to take calcium supplements.  It’s kind of like trying to fix a deteriorating brick wall by throwing bricks at it and hoping some of them stick.  Bones need lots of other nutrients to stay strong:

Protein makes up a large proportion of bone structure.  You don’t need to eat excessive amounts of protein – just a sufficient daily intake of around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of ideal body weight.  Boosting protein for elderly people, who sometimes fail to get enough, can help improve bone strength if all the other key nutrients are in place.

  • Calcium is the most widely publicized nutrient in bones, but it’s not the only one.  Simply taking calcium supplements and hoping they stick isn’t likely to work very well if the other nutrients aren’t present in sufficient amounts.
  • Vitamin D helps your body absorb and use calcium.  Low intake, or low exposure to bright sunshine, which stimulates vitamin D production in skin, can lead to deficient levels.  The farther north you live, the more time you spend inside buildings and cars, and the darker your skin tone, the more likely you’ll be deficient.
  • Phosphorus is another key bone mineral, usually widely available in food.
  • Potassium.  We usually don’t think of potassium as important for bones.  It’s better known for its effect on lowering blood pressure.  But it is important for bone, and unfortunately most people eat few high potassium vegetables and fruits every day.
  • Magnesium.  Like potassium, it’s not widely recognized as important for bones, but 60% of the body’s magnesium is found in bones.  Unfortunately intake is frequently low, because it’s found in plant foods like vegetables, nuts and whole grains.
  • Vitamin K.  Isn’t vitamin K important for blood clotting?  Yes, thanks to it’s effect on calcium utilization.  The research on vitamin K and bones is relatively new, but that hasn’t stopped some supplement companies from putting it in bone-building supplement products.  Unfortunately, we don’t really have much good information on what dose might be helpful.  Meanwhile, vitamin K is plentiful in green vegetables, and can be made in our gut by certain bacteria.  These days, lots of people are being told to limit intake of these foods because they’re on anti-coagulant medications….  hmmm.
  • Boron is another micronutrient that may impact bone strength.  In fact, it’s hard to think of a nutrient that wouldn’t affect bone strength or bone metabolism in some way, since all nutrients are involved with cell growth and metabolism.

If you’ve been given a prescription for a bone drug, don’t imagine it will work very well if all the components of healthy bone aren’t in place.  Bones can’t be built from drugs alone.  They’re built from nutrients, so if you need to build up your bones:

  1. Consume enough protein for your needs every day, whether from animal or vegetable sources.
  2. Get enough calcium, whether from food alone or some combination of food and supplement sources.
  3. Eat plenty of plant foods: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts.  These are full of other key minerals like magnesium and potassium.
  4. Get enough vitamin D.  Get tested to see if you need to boost intake.
  5. Stimulate bone growth by getting plenty of exercise like walking.
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