Resource Bone Health

Nutrition and bone health

We shed some light on how food and nutrient intake can contribute to building and maintaining healthy, strong bones.

A healthy diet is not just important for general health and wellbeing. What we eat can also affect the health of our bones. Specialist physician and endocrinologist, Dr Zane Stevens, from The Cape Institute of Endocrinology, gives us some insight on the link between nutrition and bone health and how we can ensure strong, healthy bones at every stage of our lives.

Q: How does nutrition affect the health of our bones?
 Bones are living, growing and constantly changing. To keep them strong and healthy, as with any other part of the body, we need the right nutrients. This is where a well-balanced diet is important. A diet filled with fish, dairy, fruit and vegetables should provide us with everything we need for optimal bone health. When nutrient intake is insufficient, supplementation may be necessary. However, nutrients from food are better absorbed than supplements.

In childhood and adolescence: Adequate nutrition helps to build peak bone mass, which reduces the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

In adults: A healthy diet can help preserve bone mass and strength.

In those who have had a fracture: Eating well can speed up recovery, and also reduce the risk of having another fracture.

Q: Which nutrients are important for bone health?
A: Calcium and Vitamin D.  Both assist in the renewal and mineralisation of bone tissue, and are essential for healthy nerve and muscle functioning. Other key vitamins and minerals include:

  • Vitamin Chelps to lay down new bone. Red and green peppers, oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, papaya and pineapple are all rich in this vitamin.
  • Vitamin Kis required for the correct mineralisation of bone. Get your fix of Vitamin K by eating more dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, turnip greens and Brussels sprouts.
  • Magnesiumassists in forming bone mineral. Magnesium-rich foods to include in your diet are tomatoes, artichokes and raisins.
  • Potassiumhelps preserve bone health. Foods high in potassium are sweet potatoes, bananas and prunes.

Q: Is milk really important for strong bones?
Milk and other dairy products are our main source of calcium. Calcium is one of the most important nutritional building blocks in our body. While dairy is calcium-rich, a glass of milk is not the only way to get our recommended daily intake. Foods rich in calcium include canned sardines and salmon, collard greens, kale and broccoli. Calcium is also sometimes added to juice, breakfast cereals and bread.

Q: Do nutrients still help after a certain age?
Even though we attain our peak bone mass in our early 20s, a healthy diet with sufficient calcium and Vitamin D is still vital to maintain bone mass. The requirements for these nutrients do however vary with age. Young, pregnant women require 1 200 mg of calcium a day due to the demands of the developing baby.

Q: Which factors affect the health of our bones? 
A: Age (over 50)
Sex (Female)
Menopause – especially early menopause
A family history of bone disease or bone disorders
Low body weight – being small and/or thin
Broken bones or height loss

Modifiable factors:

  • Inadequate nutrient intake – not getting enough calcium and Vitamin D
  • Excessive consumption of sodium, alcohol and caffeine
  • An inactive lifestyle
  • Smoking

Better bones:

Maintain a healthy BMI
A low BMI puts you at a high risk of developing osteoporosis, whereas a high BMI puts more pressure on the joints and bones, which could up your risk for brittle bones and other health conditions.

Get active
Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging and taking the stairs, are particularly effective in helping build bone mass, increase bone density, and slow down age-related bone loss. Weight training also helps strengthen both bones and muscles, which reduces the risk of falls, fractures and broken bones.

Quit smoking
Smoking hampers the work of bone-building cells and may affect bone health by reducing bone density. This can cause bone weakening and increase the risk of fractures.

Enjoy some sun
Vitamin D is made in our skin from exposure to the sun, and is a key nutrient in assisting calcium absorption from food, ensuring the correct renewal and mineralisation of bone tissue.  As little as 10 to 15 minutes of casual sun exposure a day is usually enough for most individuals. Just remember to keep it safe with sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.

 A little salt and caffeine goes a long way
Excessive consumption of salt and caffeine may lead to increased calcium and bone loss, especially if your calcium intake is already inadequate.

Limit your alcohol intake

High alcohol intake is toxic for our bones. Excessive alcohol consumption can inhibit the formation of new bone cells, which can suppress new bone formation. It has also been linked to greater risk of fractures, and hinders the healing process of broken bones


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