Although kale, sockeye salmon and oregano aren’t promoted by celebrities, on billboards or in magazines (is there even such a thing as a kale mustache?), those lesser-known foods can benefit your skeletal system just as much as milk can. The calcium, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids and phosphorous in the aforementioned foods are among the nutrients known for improving bone health.
Most of the body’s calcium resides in the bones, said Traci Komorek, a registered dietitian at Concord Hospital. But a small amount circulates through the bloodstream.
“If you don’t have enough calcium circulating … it pulls from your bones,” Komorek said. And of course, to get the benefits of calcium we need vitamin D. “Vitamin D helps absorb calcium from food. It all works together really nicely. It’s amazing, actually.”
Komorek said it is almost impossible for us to get all the vitamin D we need from food alone; much of it comes from exposure to the sun. Foods that do boast a substantial amount of vitamin D include egg yolks and some products that are fortified with vitamin D, as orange juice often is.
“Vitamin D helps with your mood, too,” said Christine Lauer, a registered dietician at Catholic Medical Center Nutrition Clinic and Obesity Treatment Center. “It gives you a sunny disposition.” Lauer noted cod liver oil is a good source of both omega-3s and vitamin D. She herself takes a teaspoon of the oil daily.
Joining milk, from both goat and cow, as another dairy product that can keep bones strong is yogurt.
“All yogurts have probiotics,” Lauer said. “Those are also good for bone-building.”
While milk is a highly concentrated source of calcium, significant amounts of the mineral can also be found in greens such as spinach, kale, collard greens, turnip greens and bok choy. Masking leafy greens in soups and sauces is a good way to boost calcium levels in fussy eaters and children, Lauer said.
“Making kale chips is fantastic, too,” Komorek said.
Tofu, sesame seeds and some herbs, including thyme, oregano, dill and cinnamon, all have calcium but need to be eaten in large quantities to make an impact.
“Two teaspoons for dill equals six percent of your daily value of calcium — but everything adds up,” Komorek said.
Perhaps the most unlikely addition to your diet that serves as a significant source of calcium is, in fact, bones, primarily those from fish and beef.
“It’s a missing food group in today’s diet,” Lauer said. Bone broth is usually on dietary plans for those diagnosed with osteoporosis, Lauer noted, adding that Bone Recipes, History and Lore by Jennifer McLagan is good cookbook for those looking to add more calcium to their diet using bone-based dishes. “Think back to the time when soups and stews were made with bones and marrow was considered a delicacy,” she said. A person can also benefit from the bones in red or canned sockeye salmon — also a source of omega-3s.
“Really try to appreciate it with the bones,” Lauer said. “The bones will get you a major portion of calcium. They’re better than a potato chip crunch and are soft so you can eat them.”
Just as some foods improve or maintain bone health, some do more harm than good.
“Cereal is something everything thinks is great but it can hurt your bones,” Lauer said. Grains and starches, she noted, contain phytates, compounds that blocks the absorption of calcium. “While you’re eating healthy you’re inadvertently damaging your bones,” Lauer said. Some medications, primarily proton pump inhibitors, can also contribute to bone depletion as they affect one’s ability to absorb calcium.
“Always ask the pharmacist about bone depletion,” Lauer said. “Look at the food and drug interaction in the long term.” A person can regain depleted bones in the earlier stages of osteopenia, a sort of milder version of osteoporosis. In the later stages bone density loss, a person can only make necessary dietary changes to prevent it from worsening.
Diets involving too much sugar also do a number on the bones if not balanced properly with bone-friendly foods.
“Get rid of that sweet tooth,” Lauer said. “Sweet tooths are bad for bones.”
Bone health should be a concern starting at birth, Lauer said, but Komorek noted that it is during the teenage years that dairy and leafy greens start disappearing from people’s diets — “and you need the most calcium during those years.”
“You can’t undo what you’ve been missing, but you can change your diet at any time,” Lauer said. “Even after you’re diagnosed [with bone-density loss] you can either stem the tide or replete a portion of bone mass.” Bone strength can also be increased through exercise, she said.
Women, who are more likely than men to show signs of bone depletion, should get their bones checked at age 50 if not sooner, Lauer said. A bone density test known as a DEXA scan is used to determine bone health by looking at the spinal column and hip bones.
“As a dietitian, I see people with cholesterol, diabetes, weight loss, heartburn, celiac [disease] … no one really comes to me to help their bones,” Lauer said. “That’s interesting.”