We might take it for granted until problems become apparent, but the health of our bones is something to which we should pay attention throughout our whole lives.
Bone formation occurs around the clock as long as we are alive, no matter our age. While humans usually stop growing in their late teens, new bone tissue continues to be formed, and old bone tissue is broken down, replaced and recycled by our bodies. Scientists estimate that about 10 percent of an adult person’s bone mass is replaced each year.
For all that to go without a glitch, and to prevent future bone-related conditions, we need to consume foods that will supply our bodies with the raw materials with which to make new bone. Just as important, we need to avoid substances that will deplete bone-making materials in our bodies or prevent their absorption.
Here are some do’s and don’ts for healthy bones, beginning with the do’s —
Eating the Right Foods:
Bones are made of calcium, phosphorus and collagen. If you want healthy bones, eating foods rich in these three nutrients is the first place you want to start.
Calcium and phosphorus are minerals that give bones their hardness and structure, while collagen is a protein that gives tissues, including bone tissue, elasticity. Collagen makes bones less apt to break and gives elasticity to supporting structures like tendons and cartilage.
Calcium is naturally found in dairy products, salmon, sardines, egg whites, dark green vegetables and fortified cereals.
Phosphorus is found in foods that are high in protein, including dairy products, meats, salmon, eggs, nuts and seeds.
Collagen is made from amino acids found in meats, dairy products, eggs, fruits (including citrus and berries), red or orange vegetables (including tomatoes, chilies, carrots and sweet potatoes), dark greens and legumes (especially peanuts).
As you can see, many of the same foods that are rich in calcium are also good sources of phosphorus and collagen. (If you have problems digesting dairy, try lactose-free or reduced-lactose dairy. Many people with milk sensitivities also report tolerating organic dairy products much better than non-organic.)
Two additional things to keep in mind are that the body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium from foods, and that vitamin C is necessary for the body to convert the amino acids lysine and proline into protein to make collagen fibers.
Vitamin D can be found in salmon, sardines, mackerel, tuna, eggs, enriched products and mushrooms like shiitake and portobello. But the most abundant (and cheapest!) source of vitamin D is sunshine.
As little as a 10- or 15-minute exposure to the Sun by a fair-complected person, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., with plenty of bare skin, is believed to cause the skin to synthesize a full day’s requirement of this important vitamin. Use a natural sunscreen if you plan on being in the Sun much more than 15 minutes, to prevent sunburn (and skin cancer). But aim to be out in the Sun without sunscreen for the first 15 minutes of exposure. Also, wearing a wide-brimmed hat is recommended at all times when you’re in the Sun, to avoid burning your scalp or damaging hair follicles and delicate facial skin.
People with darker skin need much longer Sun exposure, to make the same amount of vitamin D. Also, people living in cities with high pollution, and the elderly, don’t absorb as much Sun radiation as others. People in these categories (or those living where there isn’t much Sun) may consider taking vitamin D supplements to increase their D stores, in addition to eating foods rich in the vitamin. Before you start supplementation, have your health care provider measure D levels in your blood to see how much more you need.
As for Vitamin C, it is found in citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, etc.), broccoli, bell peppers, green or red hot peppers, dark leafy greens, fresh herbs and strawberries.
Getting Regular Exercise:
Because bones are living tissue, they respond to exercise, just like muscles do. Men and women who exercise regularly tend to develop greater bone density — that is, stronger bones — than people who do not exercise regularly. Exercise has also been found to prevent osteoporosis as we age. In addition, exercise makes our muscles stronger and improves our balance and coordination; these three things will help prevent falls which could lead to bone fractures.
And now, the don’ts —
Limit Salt Intake:
One of several important reasons to limit our salt (or sodium) intake is that the more salt we consume, the more calcium gets eliminated in the urine and sweat; excessive salt consumption can cause bone loss over time, especially when not enough calcium is consumed in the diet to make up for the calcium lost.
Start by avoiding processed foods and fast foods, which typically have high sodium contents. Research in fact has shown that most Americans get 75 percent of their daily salt intake from processed foods, and not from table salt. Avoid processed meats, canned soups or canned vegetables with added salt. Choose instead natural, whole foods; throwing a few whole foods, herbs and spices in a pan or in a pot at home is easy, and you’ll get a lot more nutrition for your purchasing dollar (especially if you buy organic foods), with none of the weird chemical preservatives, stabilizers or added salts.
Stay away from soft drinks, as they contain salt (in differing amounts, depending on the brand and type). They also often contain phosphoric acid (as in the case of colas), which causes more calcium to be eliminated through the urine.
Sodas also contain empty calories from the sugar (or non-nutritive artificial sweeteners that are foreign to our bodies). Most sodas also have other chemicals that do no good and might only do harm, including artificial colors and artificial preservatives. Further, every glass of soda that you drink is one less glass of body-cleansing, hydrating water that you’ll consume, or nutritious milk or fruit juice.
Limit your consumption of caffeinated beverages, as caffeine drains calcium from bones (though not as much as salt).
One of many reasons why cigarettes should be avoided: research has found an association between smoking and decreased bone density. Also, women who smoke produce less estrogen — this hormone is necessary for good bone health.
Go Easy on the Alcohol:
Medical professionals and researchers are standing firm on their recent pronouncement that light alcohol consumption is beneficial for our cardiovascular systems, and it also seems to improve bone strength. But the experts define light consumption as one daily alcoholic beverage for women and two for men. They are equally resolute in their conclusion that anything that exceeds those numbers is harmful to the body’s systems, including the heart and the skeletal system.
Some health experts have called alcohol a “calcium blocker,” being that drinking more than lightly interferes with the absorption of dietary calcium. In addition, heavier alcohol consumption disrupts the work of osteoblasts, which are bone-building cells, so that if a fracture occurs, the bone will take longer to heal.
Certain medications will leech calcium from your bones. These include steroids, and some cholesterol-lowering, blood-thinning and weight loss medications. Ask your doctor if any medicines that you are taking interfere with the calcium in your system.
Prolonged exposure to the stress hormone cortisol can thin the bones. Find fun and easy ways to combat stress, such as exercise, hobbies, pets, friendly get-togethers, participation in community events … whatever helps stress dissipate for you.
By Lisa Pecos