Building (and maintaining) better bones

Osteoporosis, often referred to as the “brittle bone disease”, affects more than 1.4 million Canadians. It can cause bones to become so weak and brittle that even mild stresses such as bending over or lifting a vacuum cleaner can cause a fracture. Fractures typically occur in the spine, hip or wrist.

While often thought of as a woman’s disease, osteoporosis also affects many men. Bones generally weaken when they have low levels of calcium, phosphorus and other minerals. Since bone mineral loss can begin as early as your 30s, it’s never too early – or too late – to take steps to keep your bones strong and healthy. Certain lifestyle changes such as incorporating adequate calcium into your diet, as well as taking vitamin D supplements and getting regular exercise can help to protect your bones, no matter what age you are.

Get your Calcium

How much calcium is enough? Osteoporosis Canada recommends a daily calcium intake of 1500 mg for people over 50. While milk and dairy products such as yogurt and cheese continue to be an important source of calcium, foods beyond the dairy aisle can also provide valuable calcium.

Try adding almonds, broccoli, bok choy, cooked kale, canned salmon and sardines (with the bones), figs, oats and soy products such as tofu. Calcium can also be found in dried beans and legumes. A variety of calcium-enriched foods such as orange juice and soy milk are also readily available.

If you find it difficult to get enough calcium from your diet, consider taking calcium supplements. Antacids, such as TUMS Ultra Strength and Rolaids also contain calcium. One tablet of TUMS, for example, contains 750mg of calcium – more calcium than 250 mL (1 cup) of milk, which contains 300mg.

Note: Calcium and dairy products provide benefits beyond bone health, including possibly lowering the risk of high blood pressure and colon cancer.

Get your Vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a vital role in ensuring the body can absorb calcium from your diet and/or supplements. However, vitamin D deficiency continues to be a significant issue in Canada and around the world. Osteoporosis Canada recommends a daily vitamin D intake of 800 mg for adults over the age of 50. In Canada, most adults need a vitamin D supplement from October to April. Those over 50, or with limited exposure to the sun, are advised to take one all year.

Get regular exercise

Regular exercise, especially weight-bearing exercise such as walking or jogging, is an important part of building and maintaining strong bones. (Swimming, cycling and machines such as elliptical trainers can provide a good cardiovascular workout, but because they’re low impact, they’re not as beneficial for bone health as weight-bearing exercises.)

Strength training helps strengthen muscles and bones in your arms and upper spine. While exercise throughout life is important, you can increase your bone density at any age.

Other tips for better bone health

Be careful about getting too much retinol( vitamin A), which can weaken bones. Vitamin A is found in foods such as liver, eggs and fatty fish, as well as fortified milk, energy bars, and breakfast cereals. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) adult males need no more than 3,000 IU per day, and women 2,330 IU.

Add soy to your diet. The plant estrogens found in soy help maintain bone density and may reduce the risk of fractures.

Don’t smoke. Smoking can increase bone loss. This can happen by possibly decreasing the amount of estrogen a woman’s body makes and by reducing the absorption of calcium in the intestine.

Avoid excessive alcohol. Consuming more than two alcoholic drinks a day may decrease bone formation and reduce your body’s ability to absorb calcium.

Limit caffeine. Keep your caffeine consumption moderate. About two to three cups of coffee a day should be fine as long as your diet contains adequate calcium.

Sources: Osteoporosis Canada; The Mayo Clinic; The Harvard School of Public Health; the National Institutes of Health.

Photo © Diego Cervo