Bones are made up of minerals, like calcium and phosphorus. Plus, a protein that you may associate more with skin than bones — collagen! Collagen gives our bones some flexibility which helps to prevent them from breaking.
Our bones don’t only grown when we’re kids and then stay the same for life, they are always changing. Minerals are absorbed from the bones to the bloodstream so they can be used in other parts of the body. Then minerals from the bloodstream build new bits of bone. This happens all our life but peak bone mass, when bones are at their biggest and strongest, happens in our 20s to 30s. From around 35 years old, bone loss is higher than bone reformation, so our bones get weaker.
We need many nutrients to keep bones healthy. Calcium and Vitamin D (discussed below) are key. But vitamin K, vitamin C and fluoride also have very important roles. So a balanced diet will help you to build the strongest bones you can.
Bones: Why are They Important?
✔️ Support for our muscles
✔️ Allow us to move by acting as levers
✔️ Protect our important organs (like the skull protecting our brains!) 💀
✔️ Produce the red blood cells, inside the bone marrow
✔️ Store nutrients, like calcium!
Calcium is a mineral — the most plentiful mineral in the body. In fact, an adult’s weight is made up of about two per cent calcium! And it’s one of the most important nutrients for bone health. It makes up part of the structure of our bones and teeth. So it’s often called the building blocks of the bones. 🔨 As our bones are always repairing and rebuilding, we need plenty of these building blocks.
Our bones grow a lot during childhood so it’s very important to build the strongest bones you can during this time.
Because calcium is so important for bones, sometimes people think that’s all we need it for. But calcium has other important roles too. For example, we need it our muscles to work and for our hearts to beat! ❤️ 💪🏾
How Much Calcium Do I Need to Build the Strongest Bones?
Your recommended intake of calcium depends on your age and gender. Women aged 19 to 50 and men aged 19 to 70 need 1000mg per day. Women over 50 and men over 70 need even more, 1300 mg per day.
1000mg of calcium works out to be about three serves of calcium-rich food.
Where Can We Get Calcium?
Calcium-rich food: Aim for three serves of these a day
D A I R Y products! Milk (1 glass), yoghurt (small tub) and cheese (2 slices) are amongst the best sources of calcium around
Fish with edible bones like sardines or tinned salmon (1 small tin)
Calcium and vitamin D-fortified soy or other non-dairy milk (1 glass)
Dark green leafy vegetables, like spinach, kale and kai lan 🌱 🌿
What is Lactose Intolerance:
You might have heard people saying they’re lactose intolerant. So what is lactose intolerance? When your body stops producing or reduces the amount of an enzyme called lactase. This enzyme usually breaks down the sugar, called lactose, in dairy products. Without the lactase enzyme, the lactose gets fermented in the gut. This can cause you some uncomfortable symptoms. Lactose intolerance is very common. It happens to a lot of children at around age 2 or 3 years old. It is more common in those from a Southeast Asian background.
Don’t worry though! Dairy can still make a part of a healthy diet when you have lactose intolerance. Try these tips:
1. Choose hard cheeses, these have lower levels of lactose but still lots of calcium
3. Consume dairy in a smaller amount, spread throughout the day or as part of a meal
Vitamin D helps your body absorb the calcium from the food you eat. Small amounts of vitamin D come from food but it mostly comes from sunshine. The amount of time you need to spend outside to get your daily dose depends on your skin tone. If you have light skin, wearing a t-shirt and shorts in the sun for 10 to 30 minutes, three times a week is likely to be enough. Those with darker skin may need 20 to 90 minutes. If you’re out in the sun for longer periods than this or you burn easily, it’s still important to be sun-smart. If you wear covered clothing or live somewhere with limited daylight, you may need to get your vitamin D level checked.
Weight-bearing exercise is any activity that you do on your feet. This type of activity is making your bones work against the force of gravity. Why is it good to make your bones work harder? It forces your bones to grow stronger and denser. Running, walking, skipping, playing basketball or soccer are all weight-bearing. But, swimming isn’t counted as a weight-bearing activity. Because the water in the pool supports your body weight. So your bones aren’t working against gravity. Cycling isn’t weight-bearing either, as the bike is supporting your body weight.
But even non-weight bearing exercise is important for bone health. Especially for older people. Why? Because strong muscles, balance and coordination help prevent falls and fractures.
So now you know some of the things you can do to build the strongest bones you can! But what should you avoid to help your bones?
Low body weight, particularly in the elderly has been linked with osteoporosis. Those who are underweight have lower bone mass and more fractures. Women over 50 and men over 65 years should be careful about weight loss. If you’re told to lose weight for your health, it’s important to look after your bones in the other ways discussed.
Smoking, Alcohol and Caffeine
Some studies show that high caffeine intake decreases calcium absorption. But other studies have suggested this may only happen in women and not men! It seems that this effect can also be offset if you include some milk in your caffeinated beverage. Either way, sticking to around 2-3 cups of coffee with milk (especially for women) could be a good idea.
Lots of studies show smoking reduces bone mass. And happens in a dose-response way, meaning the more you smoke, the more bone mass loss. Smokers are also more likely to break a hip than non-smokers. The good news is that bones seem to get stronger once you quit smoking. Click here for more information on how to quit smoking.
Osteoporosis is a bone disease where bones become fragile and break more easily. It occurs due to loss of bone mass. Osteoporosis means “porous bone.” Healthy bone looks like honeycomb, with small holes throughout. When osteoporosis occurs, the holes and spaces in the honeycomb are much larger. This makes the bones weak.
It’s more common in women after menopause as oestrogen helps protect the bones. One in two women and up to one in four men age 50 and older will break a bone due to osteoporosis. Broken bones in older adults can be very serious.
Risk factors for osteoporosis include age, family history, race, gender and certain medications. We can’t usually control these things. But there are also things we can do to reduce our risk of developing osteoporosis and build the strongest bones we can. Like getting enough calcium and vitamin D and having a balanced diet. Plus including some weight-bearing exercise and limiting smoking, alcohol and caffeine intake.
Amara is an Australian Accredited Practising Dietitian who is passionate about providing high quality, patient-centred care. She loves working with people to improve their diet in ways that fit their lifestyle, preferences and individual needs.
View all posts by Amara Lindenmayer