Build Stronger Bones With Nutrition

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on May 21, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

When you eat right, you strengthen your bones and lower your odds of getting a disease that makes them weaker and more likely to break (osteoporosis). The best strategy is to keep a few key nutrients in mind when you plan your meals.

Get Calcium

If you don't get enough, your bones may get weaker, which can lead to fractures. Many adults need 1,000 mg per day. If you're a woman over 50, bump that up to 1,200 mg. A man over 70? Ditto.

The problem is, your body doesn't make calcium on its own. You need to get it from other sources. Food, rather than pills, is the best way to get some. Choose from these groups:

Dairy Foods

Make sure you get enough dairy. It's a surefire way to protect against osteoporosis, says Rene Ficek, RD, a nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating.

Cow's milk is a great source of calcium. One cup has 300 mg. That's about one-third of the daily recommended amount.

You can also get calcium from cheese and yogurt.

Dairy Alternatives

Not a fan of dairy products? Instead of cow's milk, try some made from almonds, rice, or soy.  

Check the nutrition labels carefully. Rice milk can have anywhere from 20-250 mg of calcium per serving, says Toby Smithson, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Soy milks vary between 35-300 mg per serving.

Non-dairy Foods

You can also get calcium by eating things like:

  • Broccoli
  • Almonds
  • Canned sardines
  • Salmon and other soft-bone fish
  • Leafy green vegetables like collard greens, kale, bok choy, and spinach
  • Beans

Or try food that has it added in. It will say "calcium-fortified" on the label. Some choices are:

  • Juices
  • Soy and rice milk
  • Bottled water
  • Breads
  • Cereals
  • Snacks

For drinks, always shake the container. The calcium may have settled to the bottom.

A supplement can help if you can't get enough calcium from your diet. Ask your doctor how much is right for you.

Invest in Vitamin D

It's also important for strong bones. Your body needs it to absorb calcium.

Most people need 400-800 IU (international units) of vitamin D a day. You can get that in a serving of grilled salmon, or in a salad topped with lots of canned tuna. 

If you're over 50, you need more. Try to get at least 800-1,000 IU per day.   

If you don't get enough D from your diet, ask your doctor if you should try a supplement.

You can also get some vitamin D when you get out in the sun for 10 to 15 minutes a day. But don't overdo it, since too much sunshine raises your risk of skin cancer.

Power Up With Protein

Protein may improve your bone strength. Plus, studies suggest it helps your body heal after a bone fracture.

If you're a woman, get 46 grams of protein every day. What does that look like? A 3-ounce serving of meat has 21 grams and a cup of dried beans has about 14, for example.

If you're a man, bump your daily totals up by an extra 10 grams.

Milk and milk alternatives are good protein sources. A cup of milk has 8 grams, and a cup of yogurt has 11.

But don't go overboard. High-protein diets may actually cause your body to lose calcium, Ficek says.

Other Bone-Building Nutrients

Potassium and magnesium. Foods with both may be good for your bone health.

"This duo, found in produce, has been found to slow bone loss," Smithson says. Good sources are spinach, halibut, and soybeans.

Some other nutrients that are good for your bones are:

  • Vitamin K
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin A (But too much may lead to bone loss and increase your risk of a hip fracture.)

Get more by eating:

  • Dairy products
  • Meat
  • Citrus fruits
  • Tomatoes
  • Eggs
  • Green, leafy vegetables
  • Carrots
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Bran cereal
  • Almonds or cashews
  • Tofu

Moderation Is Key

Some foods, when you have too much of them, can be bad for your bone health. Keep these tips in mind:

Go easy on the alcohol. "Drinking more than 2-3 drinks per day can actually lead to bone loss," Ficek says.

Cut back on caffeine. Limit the amount of coffee, tea, and soda you drink. They might make it hard for your body to absorb calcium.

Eat less sodium. If you get too much of it, your body may lose calcium. Try to keep it under 2,400 mg a day. You can keep track by reading nutrition labels on boxes, cans, and bottles.

Show Sources


Rene Ficek, RD, nutrition expert, Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating.

Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: "Calcium, Nutrition, and Bone Health."

National Osteoporosis Foundation: "Calcium and Vitamin D: What You Need to Know."

NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center: "Once Is Enough: A Guide to Preventing Future Fractures."

University of Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine: "Osteoporosis."

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