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Osteoporosis Awareness Month: Nutrition and osteoporosis

Published May 2, 2016

URBANA, Ill. - At a young age parents encourage children to drink their milk and eat their vegetables. The importance of good nutrition goes beyond growing up healthy, though. It is also important in prolonging the occurrence of diseases such as osteoporosis later in life. 

May is Osteoporosis Awareness and Prevention Month. According to research, 1 in 3 women worldwide over the age of 50 will experience a bone fracture due to osteoporosis, as will 1 in 5 men. Osteoporosis, meaning “porous bones,” is defined as a condition in which bones become weak and brittle, making individuals more susceptible to fractures. Similar to other prevalent diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease, age, family history, ethnicity, and gender all contribute to the occurrence of osteoporosis.

“Although there are many risk factors that are uncontrollable in prevention of osteoporosis, lifestyle changes such as exercise and a healthy diet can help prolong occurrence of the disease,” says University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator, Lisa Peterson.

“A balanced diet is important for bone health including plenty of foods rich in calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and even fluoride found in toothpaste and drinking water,” she explains.  Calcium and vitamin D work together in the body to keep bones strong. Vitamin D, a fat soluble vitamin, is necessary for the body to absorb calcium and overall protect bones. The major dietary source of vitamin D is foods fortified with the vitamin, such as milk, yogurt, cereals, and breads. Natural sources of vitamin D are quite few, but mainly found in fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and fish oils, such as tuna or cod liver oil, Peterson adds.  

“Natural sunlight through ultraviolet B rays is also a way to get vitamin D. The skin can absorb all the vitamin D needed in a day in half the time it takes for the skin to tan or turn pink. Vitamin D absorption through sunlight depends on time of day, where you live, color of skin, and amount of skin exposed,” Peterson notes. “Additionally, taking supplements may be necessary, but consult a physician prior to consumption. Supplements, although they may be necessary, should not replace food.”

As mentioned, the body needs vitamin D and calcium to produce strong and healthy bones. The body cannot make calcium by itself, and 99 percent of calcium is stored in bones and teeth. When the body does not get enough calcium, it is taken from the bones. Aside from needing calcium to maintain bone health, calcium helps with muscle contraction, blood clotting, and sending messages throughout the nervous system. “Foods rich in calcium are dairy products, such as yogurt, cheese, and milk. Vegetables also contain calcium such as collard greens, broccoli, bok choy, and even soy beans,” Peterson says.

Vitamin D and Calcium are important at every stage in life for maintaining optimum bone health, but are there foods that should be limited? Foods high in sodium or salt can negatively impact bone health because the body eliminates more calcium with a diet high in sodium. Choosing less processed foods, rinsing canned foods, choosing no-salt-added options, reading nutrition facts labels, and consuming less than 2,300 milligrams, or a teaspoon of salt per day, are a few recommendations Peterson suggests to limit sodium.

“Aside from eating plenty of foods with calcium, fortified with vitamin D, or supplements, exercise is another method for keeping bones strong,” Peterson says. “Remember, walking is a free form of exercise and a simple way to keep bones strong. Enjoy the beautiful spring weather with a walk around the neighborhood or use a ten-minute work break to walk around the office.

“Balance and flexibility exercises can also help prevent falls and potential fractures. Take a few friends and try a Tai Chi or yoga class to help improve strength, balance, and flexibility.”