Your diet can affect how strong your bones stay as you age. Keep yours in tip top health with this expert advice
Each year the NHS deals with more than 250,000 emergency hospital admissions due to falls. As people get older their bones can become weaker, and this is especially true for women after the menopause, when the bone-protecting hormone estrogen drops off significantly. More than three million people in the UK are estimated to have osteoporosis, a condition that causes around 500,000 broken bones every year – that’s nearly one a minute. So what can you do to help reduce your risk?
Pile those vegetables high on your plate! Vitamin C is vital for the body’s formation of collagen, which makes bones resilient and flexible. If we become very deficient in this vit, we’ll not only leave ourselves open to colds and infection, but we’re at risk of developing scurvy, where bones become brittle and more likely to fracture. Load up on fresh fruit and vegetables, especially berries, citrus, peppers and tomatoes.
“There is some interesting research into the effect of adding cider vinegar to foods,” says Dr Marilyn Glenville, a women’s health expert who works with bone-strengthening supplement NHP Osteo Support (£25.77, naturalhealthpractice.com). “It seems that vinegar can increase calcium absorption. Use cider vinegar either in salad dressings and so on, or as a drink – just sip 15ml (1 tablespoon) of cider vinegar and honey in a cupful of warm water up to three times a day.”
Eat green varieties like leafy veg, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts, because the vitamin K they contain helps build strong bones. It’s all down to a protein called osteocalcin, which helps give bones flexibility as you move. Osteocalcin is made by the body, but our bones struggle to absorb it without vitamin K. “People who eat a high intake of fruit and vegetables have been shown to maintain good bone density,” explains Marilyn. “It is thought that this is caused by the alkaline effect produced by eating these foods, unlike the acid reaction created by animal protein.”
Here moderation really is the key. Excessive alcohol consumption is a known risk factor for osteoporosis, but in a study of 40 postmenopausal women, having between half a drink and two alcoholic drinks a day slowed bone turnover. Post menopausal women often have a high bone turnover which makes bones thinner, and so it’s possible that consuming a very small amount of alcohol is more protective than consuming none at all.
The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly the food you eat turns into glucose in the bloodstream. Put simply, the slower the better, and so avoiding refined starches and sugars (white bread, sugary drinks) and focusing on low-GI foods like proteins, vegetables, beans and good fats like olive oil, avocados and nuts will prevent your insulin levels spiking which causes an increased risk of osteoporosis. A high-fibre diet will help, too.
While this vitamin can be found in foods such as oily fish, eggs and liver, your best bet for a decent dose of this bone-building nutrient is exposure to sunlight. Experts recommend between 20 and 30 minutes of sunbathing with your forearms and legs exposed in the UK summer sun. Vitamin D and magnesium also work together in maintaining bone health. Magnesium, which aids the absorption of calcium, can be found in nuts, pulses and green, leafy vegetables, or you could try taking a supplement.
Studies have shown that carbonated drinks, and this even includes fizzy water, cause us to lose calcium from our bones. “Fizzy drinks contain high levels of phosphorus, a mineral you should treat with caution,” explains Marilyn. “Why? Because when phosphorus levels in your blood rise, a message is sent to your brain telling it that there is not enough calcium.
The result is that your body draws calcium from your bones and teeth to balance the high levels of phosphorus and if this happens regularly; your bones can begin to weaken.
“Women of menopausal age and older should avoid soft fizzy drinks,” says Marilyn. “In one study, postmenopausal women with osteoporosis were given phosphorus at each meal over a period of 12 months. The subsequent bone biopsies revealed that while bone-forming surfaces had decreased, bone-dissolving surfaces increased. This means that the phosphorus was increasing bone turnover, causing more bone to be broken down than was being restored.”
Blocking stomach acid increases the risk of osteoporosis. You need stomach acid to be able to absorb calcium, along with other vitamins and minerals. Studies show having too little acid, as opposed to too much, is a more common trigger of digestive problems anyway, so look into this as an option if you are taking antacids regularly.
Each cup of coffee that you drink makes you lose up to 150mg of calcium in your urine. “We now know that drinking more than two cups of coffee a day can significantly increase the risk of hip fractures,” says Marilyn. “Tea also contains caffeine, although not as much as coffee, so the acidic effect is reduced. However, if you like your cuppa, take care not to drink it at mealtimes because the tannin in tea binds to important minerals such as calcium and zinc and prevents their absorption in the digestive tract. Leave a gap of at least one hour before or after eating if you are going to have a cup of regular black tea.”
Research has found that postmenopausal women with a high-salt diet lose more bone minerals than other women of the same age. “A diet high in salt will increase calcium loss through the urine,” says Marilyn. “Salt is sodium chloride, which is often in high amounts in processed and convenience foods, especially no-fat and low-fat foods. These tend to be high in both salt and sugar, which are needed to make them palatable.”
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