Did you know that all of our bones, pound for pound, are 4 times stronger than concrete and inch for inch stronger than steel? Reaching peak bone density at around age 30, our bone strength can start to decline as we head toward middle age. But keeping our bones strong and healthy is essential no matter how old we are.
In the United States alone, it’s estimated that about 8 million women and 2 million men currently have osteoporosis. In this disease, bones can become fragile, weak, and brittle and increase the risk for breaks and fractures. What’s even more concerning is that another 34 million Americans currently have low bone density, which is just a stepping stone away from the beginnings of osteoporosis. While a decline in bone-protecting estrogen during menopause for women can contribute to bone loss at an earlier stage in life, at the age of 65, men lose bone mass at about the same rate. (1)
A few factors that can contribute to low bone density include smoking, drinking alcohol, lack of exercise, aging, certain diseases, and the use of certain drugs like corticosteroids. (2) But, one of the most critical factors in keeping our bones dense and healthy throughout our lives is eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.
Here are some of the most essential nutrients to help maintain optimal bone health:
One of the most essential nutrients for keeping strong, healthy bones is calcium. When our bone tissue is developing, it’s built from a frame of collagen proteins. This provides bones with a bit of flexibility, but it’s filled in with calcium crystals and other supporting minerals to harden bones for ultimate strength and support. In fact, about 99% of all the calcium in our body is stored in the bones. (3)
Calcium-rich milk and dairy products like yogurt are often praised as crucial to building strong, healthy bones. While they are a good source of calcium, plant-based foods like leafy greens (like kale), edamame, tofu, broccoli, almonds, kidney beans, and even sardines and salmon with bones can also help you get your daily calcium. Calcium is so crucial for bone health that it’s often added to foods like fortified cereals and orange juice.
As the 4th most abundant mineral in our body, with about 60% stored in our bones, magnesium is a critical bone-building nutrient that most of us aren’t getting enough of. Not only is magnesium vital to our bone health and strength, but it’s also essential for regulating calcium. Studies have shown that adults who consume more magnesium through food and supplements have a better, healthier bone mass density overall (4).
Not only is magnesium needed for strong bones, but it’s also involved in over 300 chemical reactions in the body, including protein synthesis, regulating blood sugar levels and blood pressure, maintaining heart, muscle, and nerve function, and a long list of other benefits.
As beneficial as magnesium is, it’s believed about 80% of the population is deficient, even when we’re eating a healthy diet. Common signs of magnesium deficiency are things like muscle twitches, sore muscles, headaches, and anxiety. Lifestyle factors like stress, disease, exposure to environmental pollution, drinking coffee, drinking soda and alcohol, or even overeating sugar can reduce the absorption and even deplete magnesium and calcium from the body.
Magnesium-rich foods to help maintain bone density include leafy greens, nuts, seeds, dark chocolate, beans, and avocados. Supplementing magnesium is always recommended since getting all the magnesium you need from diet alone can be challenging.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D, known as the sunshine vitamin, is not only an essential nutrient for immune health, but it’s also necessary for the body to absorb calcium. (5) That means if you’re deficient in vitamin D, the calcium isn’t going to be able to get to your bones where it’s needed. Vitamin D can be found in eggs, fortified foods, and certain mushrooms, but it’s tough to get all you need from food. The most effective way to get vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight. Noon is the most efficient time to get the most vitamin D, with the least risk. About 20 minutes is all you need. (6)
A vitamin D supplement is the best way to keep your vitamin D levels up throughout the year, as food sources may not provide enough. This is especially true if you live in a cold climate, spend a lot of time indoors, or have darker skin, making absorbing vitamin D more difficult. If you’re unsure that your vitamin D levels are healthy, a simple blood test is recommended at your next doctor’s appointment.
Even though boron is a mineral we only need in trace amounts, it still plays a vital role in growing and maintaining strong, healthy bones. Boron supports bone regeneration and mineralization at the cellular level. Still, it also has an important relationship with calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. Boron helps the body retain these nutrients by preventing them from being lost through urination.
Also unique is that boron has been shown in studies to help boost circulating vitamin D3 levels by increasing its bioavailability and reducing the time it takes for it to break down, also known as its half-life. (7)
While science is still unraveling boron’s role in the body, there’s currently no set recommended daily intake for boron. It’s believed 1 to 3 milligrams per day is sufficient. Boron is found naturally in fruits and veggies like leafy greens, nuts, dried beans, milk, and even coffee.
5. Vitamin K2
Also essential for keeping bones strong is fat-soluble Vitamin K. While one form, known as Vitamin K1, activates enzymatic proteins responsible for blood clotting, Vitamin K2 activates a protein called osteocalcin that is important in bone-building. Osteocalcin also ensures that calcium is directed to our bones and not on the walls of our arteries or our heart, where it can form a plaque that can eventually lead to heart disease. (8)
While K1 can be found in leafy greens like kale and spinach, Vitamin K2 is found in much smaller amounts in aged cheeses, dairy, and meats. One of the most naturally rich food sources of vitamin K2 is natto. Popular breakfast food in Japan, natto is made by fermenting soybeans with a bacteria called Bacillus subtilis. With a hard-to-describe flavor that can vary, natto has an unusual sticky, stringy texture and a pungent taste of salty, cheesy, and nutty. If you’re not up for incorporating natto into your diet, you can supplement with K2 to make sure your bones stay healthy and dense.