7 Foods for Better Bone Health
Photo: Oscar Wong/Getty Images
About 1.5 million Canadians over 40 have osteoporosis, a condition that leads to thin, weakened bones and raises the risk of bone fractures and mobility problems. We typically start losing bone strength in our 30s, but we can often slow down the process by paying attention to what’s on our plates.
Certain ingredients, including salt and caffeine, can increase the amount of calcium we’re losing. Other foods, on the other hand, can top us up with the many nutrients our bodies depend on to maintain bone health. Let’s take a closer look!
Kefir, a fermented dairy drink, is rich in calcium – which, as we all know, plays an important role in bone maintenance. Without calcium, our bones wear out faster. And unfortunately, as we get older, we don’t absorb calcium from foods as well as we used to. Kefir peptides may actually help our bodies absorb calcium and improve bone density, as demonstrated in a 2015 experiment in Taiwan. Lucky for you, here in Canada, kefir and other milk products are fortified with vitamin D. That’s also a critical nutrient for bone-building, since it increases the amount of calcium we absorb. Another plus: the probiotics in kefir may contribute to lower cholesterol!
Canned sardines come with bones included. This makes them an excellent source of calcium. Sardines, like other fish, are also high in protein, which is absolutely necessary for repairing bone. Here’s something else about sardines that makes us smile: They contain omega-3 oils, which appear to have special benefits for bones. Fatty fish are a better protein choice than meats high in saturated fats, which can be hard on our bone health. However, make sure you choose sardines packed in water and not oil, which may leach away some of those important omega-3s.
3. Collard greens
Magnesium, found in collard greens and other dark, leafy veggies, is another mineral essential for our bones. In fact, our risk of osteoporosis goes up when our magnesium goes low. Magnesium deficiency seems to have an impact on some of the mechanisms involved in bone building. (A very high intake of magnesium can interfere with bone health too, but you’re perfectly safe if you stick to dietary sources of this nutrient, instead of taking supplements.) When you’re eating your leafy greens, be aware that some of them, particularly spinach and beet tops, contain high amounts of oxalates, which can interfere with the amount of calcium you absorb. But just throw some low-fat cheese on your greens, and you’ll be fine! Other sources of magnesium include okra and artichokes.
Plantains and their cousins (those guys are bananas!) are rich in potassium. Other potassium foods include sweet potatoes, oranges and tomatoes. Our bones love this mineral because it helps protect them from wear and tear. It also contributes to our electrolyte balance. That’s a good thing, since we typically eat too much salt, which can raise our blood pressure and harm our blood vessels. In addition to potassium, plantains contain magnesium and fibre. Plantains can be baked, mashed and made into pancakes, but beware of plantain chips, which often serve up salt and fat.
You may know these legumes by their fun-to-say Spanish name, garbanzo beans. They’ve been eaten for thousands of years in many parts of the world. Chickpeas are high in protein, but they also have much more to offer your skeleton, including calcium, magnesium and potassium. Use canned chickpeas – or soak dried chickpeas for a few hours and drain the liquid before cooking with them – to reduce the phytates, a substance in chickpeas that can hinder your absorption of calcium. Chickpeas can reduce cholesterol, prevent blood sugar spikes, and help control overeating by making you feel full.
Oranges are high in both potassium and vitamin C. A research review published a few months ago in the British Journal of Nutrition concluded that taking in vitamin C through diet is linked with better bone density and a lower risk of osteoporosis and hip fractures. Oranges also provide us with a bit of calcium, as well as a healthy dose of a carbohydrate compound called inositol that seems to increase the amount of calcium our bones absorb, playing a role in their strength and density.
Several studies have suggested that the polyphenols in blueberries and other berry fruits can be linked to higher bone mass, possibly because of their anti-oxidant properties. According to this research, eating berries may offer some protection against bone loss as we age. But the benefits aren’t limited to older people: A study at the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center found that young rats who were given blueberry powder developed more bone mass than their buddies. The polyphenols in berries (these are what give the fruits their colour!) seemed to boost the power of bone-building cells called osteoblasts.
A version of this story was originally published on Oct. 22, 2018