It's true that we lose bone as we age. Bone loss can cause osteoporosis, where bones can become so thin that they break. Fractures from osteoporosis are a leading cause of disability. The good news: Osteoporosis isn't a natural part of aging -- there’s plenty you can do to keep your bones strong and healthy.
The first step is getting all the nutrients you need for proper bone growth. "A healthy diet can significantly reduce the risk of bone loss and osteoporosis," says Kathleen Zelman, RD, director of nutrition for WebMD. "And it's never too late to start."
2 Critical Nutrients for Bones: Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium is a crucial building block of bone tissue. Vitamin D helps the body absorb and process calcium. Together, these two nutrients are the cornerstone of healthy bones.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 1,000 mg of calcium a day for most adults and 1,200 mg/day for women after menopause and men after 70. Milk and other dairy products are excellent natural sources of calcium. You'll hit the mark by eating three servings of dairy products a day. Other good food sources of calcium include calcium-fortified orange juice, leafy green vegetables, and broccoli. If you don't eat those foods regularly, talk to your doctor about calcium supplements.
Researchers believe that most Americans fall short on vitamin D, a critical nutrient. Your body makes it naturally when your skin is exposed to sun. "In many parts of the country, especially during the winter months, the sun is too weak to generate vitamin D," says Zelman. Older people especially are at high risk of vitamin deficiency. The reason: the body becomes less efficient at producing vitamin D as we age.
Vitamin D deficiency is common in all ages and few foods contain vitamin D. Milk and some brands of yogurt are fortified with D. Vitamin D deficiency is defined as a 25(OH)D below 20 ng/ml and vitamin D insufficiency as a 25(OH) D of 21–29 ng/ml.
Adults need at least 600 IU of vitamin D per day for bone health, but some people may need up to 2000 IU to increase blood level of 25 (OH) vitamin D consistently above 30ng/ml. Adults 70 years and older need 800 IU of vitamin D a day to prevent falls and fractures.
Bone Strength Goes Beyond the Nutrition Basics
Healthy bones depend on more than calcium and D. "We now know that many nutrients are essential to maintaining bone," says Katherine Tucker, RD, PhD, chair of the department of health sciences at Northeastern University in Boston. Her research and that of others point to key roles for protein, vitamin B12, magnesium, vitamin C, and other nutrients.
"Unfortunately, the diets of many older people fall short on some of these nutrients," says Tucker. "So even if they’re getting calcium and vitamin D, they’re still losing bone."