There’s a reason your mother nagged you to drink your milk. What you put into your body strongly influences the health of your bones, not only when you’re a kid but also for the rest of your life. While some substances — such as the calcium found in a frosty, tall glass of milk — strengthen bones, others, such as excessive amounts of alcohol, can deplete them.
If you think of your bones as a bank, you’ll recognize the importance of making regular deposits when you’re young (and encouraging your kids to do so). In your thirties, your body starts to make more withdrawals than deposits, reducing some of your skeletal nest egg.
At that point, it’s impossible to make enough deposits to increase your peak bone mass. But with the right diet choices, you can slow or potentially stop your bones from becoming thinner and weaker, even if you’ve already shown significant bone loss.
What’s Best for Your Bones?
If you’re lactose intolerant or you don’t like regular milk, buy calcium-fortified orange juice or soy milk. When paired with calcium-rich fish or vegetables, you should be able to reach the recommended daily dose.
Count on Calcium
Calcium is an essential mineral for building strong, dense bones. Too little calcium is associated with low bone mass and a higher risk of fractures. Yet nutrition surveys show that many Americans don’t get enough calcium. Milk and other dairy products are the best sources, but many other foods, including herring, salmon, spinach, kale and tofu, are also calcium rich. (Cod liver oil is too, so that’s why your mother may have also nagged you about that.)
How much calcium you need depends on your age and gender: People over 50, kids ages 9 through 18, and pregnant and breast-feeding women need the most. If you have osteoporosis or osteopenia, your doctor is likely to encourage you to take a calcium supplement to be sure you’re getting enough.
Don’t Forget Your D
Known as the sunshine vitamin because it is formed in our bodies after exposure to the sun, vitamin D helps with calcium absorption. A lack of D has been linked to osteoporosis in adults. Vitamin D deficiency is a growing problem in the United States, with studies suggesting that at least one-third of seemingly healthy young adults have low D levels in their blood. It’s difficult to get enough D from our diets because it is found in just a few foods, including certain fish (among them salmon, tuna and sardines), egg yolks and fortified milk.
People who live in northern, cloudier locales also tend to have lower D levels. Federal health officials recommend that adults under age 50 should get at least 200 IU of vitamin D a day, while people 50 and older should aim for 400 to 600 IU. But many experts, including the president of the National Osteoporosis Foundation, believe those numbers are too low and encourage healthy adults to get 1,000 IU a day. The vitamin can be found at your pharmacy and is often taken alongside a calcium supplement.