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Osteoporosis: How to have strong, healthy bones

person's foot and leg with skeletal structure showing

Many people think poor bone health and osteoporosis are a problem for the elderly — but they can strike anyone. With the right foods and exercise, however, you can protect bone strength.

An ex-swimmer who drank lots of milk as a kid, Suzanne, now 42, assumed she had strong bones until she fell, broke her wrist, had a bone density test, and discovered she had osteoporosis. Shocked, but determined to do something about it, she found it wasn’t too late to make changes and improve her bone health.

Osteoporosis or ‘porous bone’ is a condition where mineral loss from bones causes them to become weak and brittle, which can increase the risk of fracture. Worldwide, osteoporosis causes more than 8.9 million fractures annually. CEO of Osteoporosis Australia, Greg Lyubomirsky, says a one in four of the population have low bone density, but will only find out when they fall and sustain a fracture or break. Once considered an ‘old person’s disease’ since it mainly affects those over 65, osteoporosis can be diagnosed at any stage of life. It also doesn’t discriminate between men and women.

Bone is a living tissue that throughout your life is continually being broken down and replaced — a process called remodelling. Until your early–20s, more bone is being produced than broken down, so bone mass increases, before peaking in your late–20s. From your mid–30s onwards you start to lose bone mass. The rate at which this happens is dependent upon two main factors — exercise, and what you eat. We show you how to manage these challenges — and reduce your risk of osteoporosis.

2 ways to build and maintain healthy bones

1 Weight-bearing exercise

Australian physiotherapist Ruth Tetley, who has a special interest in bone health, says it’s the tug of muscle against bone when you’re doing weight-bearing exercises that helps make bones stronger.

“While walking can benefit bones in your lower spine, hips and legs, it’s important to include exercises that build upper body strength.”

She suggests Pilates or yoga three times a week, saying “the bonus of both of these exercises is they also improve balance and coordination, reducing the risk of falls now and in the future.”

Consume bone-building foods — especially calcium

Most people know that calcium is required for strong, healthy bones, yet almost three-quarters of us don’t meet our calcium requirements. Your bones are like a ‘bank’ that holds on to 99 percent of your body’s calcium.

If your food intake lacks calcium, your body will ‘withdraw’ calcium from your bones and then use it to support other essential body functions like muscle and nerve operation. If you have an ongoing calcium overdraft, you can increase your risk of osteoporosis.

Calcium intake is of particular importance during childhood and adolescence to help achieve peak bone mass, as well as during and after menopause.

Oestrogen has a protective effect on bones. When estrogen decreases during menopause, there is an increase in bone breakdown. Decreasing testosterone levels also affect bone mineral density in men as they age. Bones need the vitamins, minerals and protein below to regenerate…

Are you at risk of osteoporosis?

There’s no question your body needs an adequate calcium intake. But there are other factors that increase your risk of osteoporosis that you should be aware of. They include:

➜ A family history of the condition
➜ Early menopause
➜ Long-term use of steroid medication or reflux medication
➜ Medical conditions that affect nutrient absorption — such as undiagnosed or poorly-managed coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis
➜ Being 65 years or older for women, or 75 years or older for men
➜ Low Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption
➜ Smoking
➜ Excessive alcohol intake — more than 10–14 standard drinks a week
➜ A very high caffeine intake
➜ An excessive salt intake

Top 6 foods to boost bone health

1 Dairy

While dairy is an easy way to achieve your calcium needs and is protein-rich, some choose plant-based alternatives. If this is you, make sure these alternatives are fortified with calcium.

2 Dried fruit

Try dried figs to increase calcium intake, dried prunes for vitamin K, and apricots, prunes and raisins for magnesium.

3 Nuts and seeds

Unhulled tahini, almonds and Brazil nuts are good sources of calcium, while pumpkin seeds provide zinc. All are an excellent source of protein!

4 Leafy green vegetables (except spinach and silverbeet)

Cabbage, kale and Asian greens are good sources of calcium, Vitamin K and magnesium. Half a cup of cooked greens each day can provide what you need.

5 Legumes

These are ideal sources of protein, and good providers of magnesium, zinc and fibre. Legumes are important for good gut health, and help to boost the absorption of nutrients.

6 Tinned salmon or sardines

The bones in tinned fish are an excellent way to increase your intake of calcium. Fish is also an important source of protein and magnesium.

What a day’s calcium on a plate looks like

With a recommended daily intake (RDI) of 1000mg calcium per day for most adults — what does this actually look like?

Example 1

170g tub yoghurt (400mg) + 95g tin of red salmon (215mg) + 3 dried figs (114mg) + 2 tablespoons tahini (132mg) + 10 Brazil nuts (50mg) + 1 cup chickpeas (90mg) = 1001mg

Example 2

150g firm tofu (480mg) + 1 cup cooked bok choy (125mg) + 2 tablespoons almond butter (132mg) + 30g reduced fat cheddar cheese (250mg) + 1 orange (50mg) = 1037mg

Date modified: 1 November 2021
First published: Sep 2020


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