Building up your bones
To keep your skeleton strong and healthy, a bone-protecting diet is essential – and beneficial at any age.
Of all the nutrients that help make healthy bones, calcium is the best-known. About 99% of the body’s calcium occurs in the skeleton – and the calcium in bones weighs about 1kg. The reason it is so important is that it’s part of a substance called calcium hydroxapatite, which lends a cement-like strength and structure to the bone.
Dairy products are the richest source of calcium, but it’s good to consider non-dairy sources that also supply a wider range of bone nutrients, much as magnesium, zinc and copper. Good examples include leafy green vegetables, figs, pulses, nuts, calcium enriched Soya milk, tofu, soy beans and canned sardines with bones.
The recommended daily allowance of calcium is 800mg – an amount that can be obtained from four canned sardines on toast. Plus a portion of broccoli and a large glass of milk/ however some experts advise higher daily intakes of calcium to optimise bone health.
Vitamin D helps calcium to be absorbed, so is another essential factor in strengthening bone. The vitamin may also be important in keeping the joints healthy.
The major source of vitamin D is through exposure of the skin to sunlight, but during the winter it is essential to step up the intake from dietary sources. Good food supplies are few and far between – liver and oily fish are the only really excellent sources. Full-fat dairy products, margarine and eggs contain far lower amounts – you would need to consume 25 pints of whole milk compared to just 20g of grilled herring to get the recommended daily allowance of 5µg.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Another good reason to eat oily fish is that it supplies omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation in the body. Cod liver oil has long been used as a remedy for arthritis, and recent findings seem to confirm the benefits of omega-3 in reducing joint pain. To maintain an omega-3 intake within the recommended range, nutritionists advocate eating 1-2 oily fish meals a week. Choose from trout, mackerel, sardines, herrings or salmon.
Antioxidants in plant foods are also thought to help maintain healthy bones. They neutralise an excess of free radicals, substances which can attack and damage joint tissue. The best sources are brightly coloured and leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds. Brazil nuts are especially rich in selenium – an antioxidant particularly associated to bone health.
Other plant compounds known as phyto-oestrogens – and in particular a subgroup called isoflavones, found largely in Soya – may help women avoid bone loss. To increase your phyto-oestrogen intake the Women’s Nutritional Advisory Service in East Sussex recommends consuming two glasses of Soya milk or a serving of tofu daily.