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Best diet for your bones

Why bones become weak

As we age, bone loss—or weakening—occurs for several reasons. One is that it becomes harder for the body to absorb calcium, the bone-building mineral. Menopause brings an additional challenge to bone strength: loss of estrogen. When the body’s supply of estrogen suddenly drops, bones lose mass rapidly. This can lead to osteoporosis, a disease in which bones become brittle and break easily.

Each year, osteoporosis is responsible for 1.3 million bone fractures and 50,000 deaths (most of them related to hip breaks). Osteoporosis-related fractures occur most commonly in the spinal column (which causes loss of height and a characteristic “dowager’s hump”), the wrist and the hip.

Some risk factors, such as diet, exercise and smoking, are controllable (see main article). Others aren’t. Women are at increased risk for osteoporosis if they are Caucasian or Asian; have a delicate build; experienced menopause early (naturally or surgically); have a mother, grandmother or sister diagnosed with osteoporosis; or never had children.

How much calcium do you need?

On average, U.S. women consume only 500 mg of calcium per day. See how much you should be getting:

AgeAmount of calcium per day (in milligrams)
Under 191,300
19 to 501,000
51 or older1,200

Foods you can eat to get your daily dose of calcium

One way to increase your intake of calcium is to switch to calcium-fortified bread, cereal and orange juice. In addition, try these calcium-rich foods:

FoodServing sizeCalcium (in milligrams)
Yogurt (low fat, fruit flavored)1 cup345
Skim milk1 cup302
Milk (2%)1 cup297
Mozzarella cheese (part skim)1 ounce207
Sardines (with bones)3 medium370
Collards (fresh, cooked)1 cup357
Broccoli (chopped and cooked)1 cup354

Want your bones to carry you for years to come? You can do a lot to ensure that they do. Three tools are at your disposal to build bone strength and fend off osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease. The first is weight-bearing exercise, including walking, running, aerobic dance and weight training. The second is nutrition. A third tool, prescription medication, is available to postmenopausal women. Talk to your Ob/Gyn to find out more.

The most important nutrient for your bones is calcium, a mineral that keeps them hard. But your body needs calcium for other reasons, too. Calcium helps your heart beat and your blood clot. It’s important to every cell in the body because it helps maintain cell membranes. If your body doesn’t get enough calcium to do those jobs, it takes it from your bones.

How much calcium is enough? A panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health issued the recommendations listed in the accompanying box, “How Much Calcium Do You Need?” In general, women who are younger than 25, pregnant, breastfeeding or postmenopausal need more calcium than other women. Be aware that more than 2,000 milligrams per day can cause constipation and increase the risk of urinary tract infection.

If you think drinking milk is the only way to get calcium, think again. Lots of other foods contain this important mineral, including other dairy products, fortified cereals, broccoli, salmon and sardines with bones. (See “Foods You Can Eat to Get Your Daily Dose of Calcium.”)

Equally important is vitamin D, which your bones need to absorb calcium from the intestines into the bloodstream. The Daily Value (the amount of a given vitamin or mineral the government recommends we consume in a day) for vitamin D is 200 international units up to age 50 and 400 thereafter. Most likely, you get enough of this vitamin in your diet, especially if you drink milk or eat cold cereals, which are fortified with it. In addition, your skin makes vitamin D every time it’s exposed to sunlight. Massive doses of this vitamin can be harmful.

Salt, caffeine and alcohol should be avoided because they have negative effects on calcium. Salt and caffeine pull calcium into the kidneys and intestines, where it’s excreted. Alcohol makes it more difficult for your body to use calcium. Smoking cigarettes also damages bones. In fact, some experts blame the increase in female smokers over the past 30 years for a rise in the number of bone fractures among older women today.

Following the guidelines in this article will help keep your bones strong so that you can stay active throughout life. To sum up: If you smoke, quit; drink alcohol only in moderation; go easy on salt and caffeine; and boost your calcium intake to the recommended level.

© 2014 Dowden Health Media