Nutrition and osteoporosis are closely linked. If you're not getting the right nutrients, whether in your diet or through supplements, you're putting yourself at greater risk for osteoporosis. But just what nutrients should you be getting to help fight osteoporosis, and how should you be getting them?
The most important nutrients for fighting osteoporosis are calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is a key building block for your bones, while vitamin D is the "key" that unlocks the door to your bones and allows them to absorb calcium.
Osteopenia is a term used to describe bone density that is somewhat lower than normal -- but not low enough to be diagnosed as osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition in which thinning bones become so fragile that they are prone to fracture easily. A person who has osteopenia is at risk for osteoporosis and may benefit from treatments to strengthen bone.
The two go hand in hand: if you don't get enough D, it won't matter how much calcium you get, because your bones can't absorb it properly. But if you don't get enough calcium, there's nothing for the vitamin D to help your bones absorb.
The National Academy of Sciences has developed recommendations for how much calcium and vitamin D you need at every age:
Young children 1-3 years old should get 700 milligrams (mg) of calcium a day.
Children 4-8 years old should get 1,000 mg per day.
Teenagers should get 1,300 mg of calcium a day.
Adults up to age 70 should get 1,000 mg per day. Women 51 and over should get 1,200 mg/day.
Women and men 71 and over should get 1,200 mg per day.
To "unlock" that calcium, the National Academy of Sciences recommends 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day from age 1 through age 70 and 800 IU after age 70. But some experts are now saying we need even more vitamin D.
Some osteoporosis experts say that we should be getting 800 to 1,200 IU of vitamin D per day. This is particularly important, because the primary source of natural vitamin D -- exposure to sunlight -- carries the potential risk of skin cancer. As more of us slather on sunscreen and stay in the shade, we need to make sure we get enough vitamin D from other sources.
To find out how much vitamin D you personally need, consider a blood test for vitamin D (25-hydroxy vitamin D) from your doctor. It measures how much vitamin D is in your body.
Experts think that vitamin D may do more to protect you from osteoporosis than only helping you absorb calcium.
"Particularly in older individuals, vitamin D deficiency makes you more likely to fall down," says Ethel Siris, director of the Toni Stabile Osteoporosis Center at Columbia University Medical Center. "If you get enough vitamin D, you not only improve your calcium, but you're less likely to fall and get a fracture."
Nutrition and Osteoporosis: Why Food Is Your Best Bet
To strengthen bones and prevent osteoporosis, you can get calcium and vitamin D from your diet, supplements, or both. What's most important is that you get them. But if you can, it's best to get these nutrients in the food you eat and the beverages you drink.