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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."

A Diet of Whole Foods

The best way to get all the nutrients you need is to fill your plate with whole foods. Nuts, beans, whole grains, and fruit and vegetables are naturally rich in an array of nutrients essential to healthy bones. Tucker’s research suggests that fruits and vegetables are just as important as dairy products for bone health.

Choosing nutrient-rich foods is particularly important as you get older since most people's calorie requirements go down. "The challenge is to get as much nutrition into a limited number of calories," says Zelman. She suggests a few simple tips:

  • Avoid highly processed foods. Processing strips some foods of their natural nutrients. Even when vitamins or minerals are added back, processed foods usually lack the full array of nutrients found in natural foods.
  • Choose whole foods.  Whenever you have the choice, go for foods with whole grains, which are far richer in nutrients linked to bone health. Look at the ingredient panel of breads, cereals, and other products made with grain. The first ingredient should be a whole grain.
  • Go for variety. "Especially if you’re cooking for yourself, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut," says Ruth Ann Carpenter, RD, author of Healthy Eating Every Day. "That rut can mean you’re missing out on the variety that ensures a healthy diet." Try a new grain, such as bulgur or quinoa. Choose vegetables from across the spectrum of colors, from leafy greens to red sweet peppers. A colorful diet, nutritionists say, will help ensure a balance of nutrients necessary for good bone health.