Osteoporosis is a silent debilitating disease where bone quality and density are reduced. Bones become very porous and fragile. Bone loss occurs slowly and progressively, often without symptoms until the first fracture. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, an estimated 10 million Americans (8 million women and 2 million men) have osteoporosis. Another 34 million have low bone mass, placing them at increased risk for osteoporosis. Genetics determine the size and density of our bones, but lifestyle factors such as a quality diet, consistent exercise, not smoking and less alcohol use can help to keep our bones strong.
Quality nutrition helps to build bone mass during the young adult years. Maximum bone density is reached by the early 20s. Preventing osteoporosis is dependent upon making the strongest, densest bones as possible.
What to Include
Although many variables can contribute to bone loss and increased fracture risk, adequate levels of calcium and vitamin D continue to be important. Calcium is a building block for bones, while vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption. Our skeleton houses 99 percent of calcium. The calcium in our bones acts as a "reservoir" for maintaining calcium levels in the blood. This is necessary for healthy nerve and muscle functioning. If calcium balance is not achieved in the body, the body will draw on the calcium in bone and result in bone loss.
The National Academy of Sciences has developed recommendations for how much calcium (from food and supplement) is needed at every age:
- Young children 1 to 3 years old should get 700 mg a day.
- Children 4 to 8 years old should get 1,000 mg per day.
- Teenagers should get 1,300 mg of calcium a day.
- Adults up to age 70 should get 1,000 mg per day.
- Women age 51 and over should get 1,200 mg/day.
- Women and men age 71 and over should get 1,200 mg per day.
Milk and dairy products are the most readily available sources of dietary calcium, but other quality non-dairy sources include, sardines and salmon (with edible soft bones), tofu, rhubarb, fortified orange juice and dark, leafy greens. These sources would provide a suitable alternative for those who stay dairy-free or who are following a vegan or vegetarian diet.
Vitamin D is necessary for the absorption and utilization of calcium. The primary source of vitamin D is exposure to sunlight. For those who live in northern latitudes, the winter sunlight is not strong enough to promote vitamin D formation. Sunscreens also prevent the formation of vitamin D, although they are still encouraged to reduce the risk of sun-induced skin cancer. Good food sources of vitamin D include salmon, tuna, sardines, eggs, fortified orange juice, fortified milk and yogurt as well as fortified breakfast cereals. Unfortunately the amount of vitamin D most people get from their diet is far below the RDA of 400 IU per day. This can be risky for those at risk for osteoporosis.