Nutrition plays a fundamental role in the bone health and height of an individual. Our body creates new bone quickly until the peak bone mass is reached around the age of 30. After 30, our bone growth slows and our body is exposed to gradual bone loss.
Many Americans are affected by low bone density and suffer from bone diseases like osteoporosis or osteopenia. These conditions are most prevalent among women from the age of 50. People with low bone density are more likely to break a bone compared to people with normal bone density.
Also, during childhood and adolescents, it’s crucial to get all the nutrients the body needs to maximize the growth potential and peak bone mass.
Keeping bones strong and healthy is important for people of all ages. Nutrition is one of the factors we can influence for the benefit of our bone health.
Here are 8 nutrients that are essential to maintain your bone density:
Calcium is a major building block of our bone tissue, and our skeleton houses 99 % of our body’s calcium stores. It plays numerous roles in our body, including building and maintaining bones and teeth, cardiovascular function, cell signaling, and muscle contraction.
There are two ways of how your body gets the calcium it needs. One is by eating calcium-containing foods or supplements. The other one is drawing from the calcium stores in your bones. If you don’t get enough calcium from your diet or supplements, your body will remove calcium from your bones.
So how much calcium per day do you need? The amount of calcium we need to consume changes at different stages in our life. Below are the current recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, by age and gender:
|0-6 months||200 mg||200 mg|
|7-12 months||260 mg||260 mg|
|1-3 years||700 mg||700 mg|
|4-8 years||1,000 mg||1,000 mg|
|9-13 years||1,300 mg||1,300 mg|
|14-18 years||1,300 mg||1,300 mg||1,300 mg||1,300 mg|
|19-50 years||1,000 mg||1,000 mg||1,000 mg||1,000 mg|
|51-70 years||1,000 mg||1,200 mg|
|71+ years||1,200 mg||1,200 mg|
Table 1: Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Calcium (2010). Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D
The recommended upper limit of calcium per day is 2,500 mg for adults up to age 50 and 2,000 mg for adults over 50.
Be sure to fuel your body with these calcium-rich foods to avoid a calcium deficiency:
- Legumes (beans, lentils)
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach)
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D has a special status for bone health since it increases the absorption of calcium and ensures the correct renewal and mineralization of bone tissue.
Beyond the positive skeletal effects calcium offers, there is further evidence that vitamin D benefits immune health, mental health, and overall life expectancy.
Severe vitamin D deficiency in children and adults results in limited growth and bone deformities. In adults, it can lead to osteomalacia, which is a softening of the bones, due to poor mineralization. Milder degrees of vitamin D inadequacy can lead to a higher risk of bone diseases like osteopenia or osteoporosis and weaker muscles in older adults.
A study from 2020 suggests, that about 1 billion people worldwide have vitamin D deficiency. In the adult population, 35 % of adults in the United States are short on vitamin D.
There are 3 ways to get enough vitamin D: through your skin, from your diet and supplements. Vitamin D is naturally formed by your body after exposure to sunlight. But be careful, too much sun exposure can also lead to skin aging and skin cancer.
The Institute of Medicine has set below an average daily level of vitamin D intake, by age and gender:
|0-12 months||400 IU (10 mcg)|
|1-13 years||600 IU (15 mcg)|
|14-18 years||600 IU (15 mcg)|
|19-50 years||600 IU (15 mcg)|
|51-70 years||600 IU (15 mcg)|
|71+ years||800 IU (20 mcg)|
|Pregnant and breastfeeding women||600 IU (15 mcg)|
Table 2: Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for Vitamin D (2010). Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D
The daily upper limit for vitamin D is 25-38 mcg (1,000-1,500 IU) for infants; 63-75 mcg (2,500-3,000 IU) for children 1-8 years; and 100 mcg (4,000 IU) for children 9 years and older, adults, and pregnant and lactating women.
Excessive ingestion of vitamin D can lead to vitamin D toxicity and damage the kidneys. Signs of toxicity include vomiting, poor appetite, constipation, weakness, and weight loss.
These foods will increase your vitamin D level:
- Fatty fish (salmon, cod, trout, mackerel, sardines, canned tuna, herring)
- Egg yolks
- Calcium-fortified foods (cereal, oatmeal, orange juice, soymilk)
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach, Brussel sprouts)
Dietary proteins represent a key nutrient for bone health in addition to calcium and vitamin D. An adequate intake of proteins is essential for building peak bone mass during childhood and adolescence. Protein is also beneficial for preserving bone mass with aging.
High protein diets are associated with decreased bone loss and fracture risk. Proteins are also beneficial to bone density, especially if calcium and vitamin D intake is limited.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight, or 0.36 gram per pound. The RDA is the minimum daily amount of a nutrient you need to keep healthy. However, the right amount for any individual depends on multiple factors, including their activity level, age, muscle mass, or current state of health.
Adults with limited protein intake are at high risk for bone loss and fractures. Protein undernutrition robs the muscles of mass and strength, increasing the risk of falls and fractures in older people. It contributes to poor recovery in patients who have suffered a fracture.
Here are some foods high in protein:
- Meat (Lean chicken or turkey breast, lean pork chops, lean beef steak)
- Fish and seafood
- Seeds and nuts (almonds, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, sunflower seeds)
- Peanut butter
- Dairy products (cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, milk, parmesan)
About 60 % of the body's magnesium is stored in bones. Magnesium is involved in the bone-building and influences the regulation of the calcium levels. Studies have associated greater bone mineral density with higher magnesium diets.
The recommended daily intake of magnesium is between 400 to 420 mg for men aged 14+ and 310 to 360 mg for women aged 14+. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume a higher daily amount of magnesium.
Magnesium deficiency is rare in generally well-nourished populations. But elderly people are sometimes at risk of magnesium deficiency, as magnesium absorption decreases with age.
Magnesium-rich foods are:
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach)
- Fruits (banana, figs, avocado, raspberries)
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna)
- Veggies ( broccoli, peas, cabbage, green beans, asparagus, brussel sprouts)
- Whole grains (brown rice, oats)
- Dark chocolate and raw cacao
Zinc is required for bone tissue renewal and bone mineralization. Like copper, zinc in trace amounts is essential to collagen synthesis that helps provide a structural platform for bone formation.
A study conducted in healthy 4-13-year-old Thai school children demonstrated a significantly higher gain in height after the children received zinc and multivitamins 5 days per week for 6 months.
An adequate intake of zinc is also beneficial for the immune function, treating the common cold and diarrhea, wound healing, and for your memory.
Bone growth retardation is commonly found in various conditions associated with dietary zinc deficiency. Children with severe zinc deficiency are affected by impaired bone growth. Milder degrees of deficiency in the elderly has been associated with poor bone status.
The recommended daily amount of zinc is 8 mg for adult women and 11 mg for adult men. As with magnesium, excessive alcohol intake can reduce the supply of zinc.
Foods rich in zinc are:
- Red meat (beef, lamb, pork)
- Shellfish (oysters, shrimps)
- Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans)
There is increasing evidence that low bone density or osteoporosis is linked to vitamin B deficiency. Especially, vitamins B6 and B12, as well as folic acid, play a role in changing homocysteine into other amino acids for use by our body. High blood levels of homocysteine have been linked to lower bone density and a higher risk of hip fractures in older persons.
Therefore, those vitamins might play a protective role in osteoporosis. Additionally to the benefits to bone health, B vitamins are beneficial against fatigue, anemia, and mental health problems.
Here are vitamin B rich foods:
- Whole grains (brown rice, barley, millet)
- Legumes (edamame, lentils, kidney beans)
- Seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, almonds)
- Fruits (citrus fruits, bananas, avocados)
- Eggs and and dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt)
- Meat (red meat, poultry, fish)
7. Vitamin C
Analysis of several studies has shown that vitamin C has a positive effect on bone health. It helps with bone formation and is also essential for healthy gums. Vitamin C is a critical modulator for the production of collagen, and offers also positive antioxidant effects.
Vitamin C deficiency can cause a variety of medical conditions, including lethargy, bone pain, impaired wound healing, and impaired bone growth.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin C for healthy adult men is 90 mg per day and for women 75 mg per day (120 mg per day for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding). Smokers have reduced amounts of vitamin C in their bodies and require 35 mg more vitamin C daily.
For adults, the tolerable upper intake level (UL) is 2,000 mg per day. Too much vitamin C is unlikely to be harmful as any excess is usually excreted in the urine rather than stored in the body. But high doses might cause nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache, or insomnia.
The following foods are high in vitamin C:
- Fruits (papaya, kiwi, orange, strawberries, acerola cherries, blackcurrants)
- Chili peppers
- Red, green, and yellow pepper
- Herbs (thyme, parsley)
- Broccoli and tomatoes
8. Vitamin K
Our body needs vitamin K primarily to produce a protein and clotting factor called prothrombin. It is important in blood clotting and bone metabolism.
Low levels of vitamin K are linked with low bone density and increased risk of hip fractures. Studies have shown that vitamin K1 and K2 work synergistically with vitamin D on bone density. Several mechanisms are suggested by which vitamin K can modulate bone metabolism.
Improvement of your vitamin K status might prevent fractures. The daily recommended intake depends on and gender: 60 mcg for children aged 9-13; 75 mcg for teenagers 14-18 years; 90 mcg for adult women and 120 mcg for adult men.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women should double their recommended daily amount. A tolerable upper limit has not been established for vitamin K consumption and toxicity is rare.
Here are vitamin K high foods:
- Leafy greens (kale, spinach, collards, turnip greens, green leaf lettuce, swiss chard)
- Veggies (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, green beans)
- Meat (beef liver, pork chops, chicken, goose liver paste)
Often, we don’t give much thought to our bones – until we happen to break one or experience bone pain. It’s important to keep in mind that bones are living, dynamic, and constantly changing tissues.
Fortunately, we can partly take control of our bone health by following a nutrient-rich diet and a healthy lifestyle. If your diet falls short of important nutrients, you should consider adding a science-backed supplement to your daily routine.
While it’s never too late to start building or maintaining your bone density, it is advisable to improve your bone status early in life.
What is your favorite food to strengthen your bones? Leave us a comment below.
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