Manage Osteoporosis with a Bone-Healthy Diet

Dear Mayo Clinic: I was recently diagnosed with osteoporosis and my healthcare team suggested that I eat a bone-healthy diet to prevent further problems and keep my bones strong as I get older. What is osteoporosis and how can I maintain a bone-healthy diet?

Reply: Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to thin and lose their strength. When bones become weaker, sudden fractures can occur, even with minimal trauma. A diet rich in calcium is important for maintaining optimal bone health and preventing osteoporosis. The same is true of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium to deposit it in the bones. The amount of calcium and vitamin D needed to optimize bone health increases with age.

Bones need nutrients so they can grow and maintain that growth. A bone-healthy diet can be a good strategy to prevent continued bone loss. This diet should be part of an overall healthy lifestyle that includes exercise and optimal levels of calcium and vitamin D.

Here are five steps to eating well for strong bones.

Eat more vegetables, fruits and whole grains

Studies show that eating more vegetables and fruits improves bone health. These foods are generally lower in calories and fat, and are rich in fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. They also contain phytochemicals, which are substances that can protect against various diseases, including osteoporosis.

Aim to eat four or more servings of vegetables and three servings of fruit a day. Fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of magnesium and potassium, as well as vitamins C, K and A. All play a role in maintaining bone health.

Also, eat four servings of grains daily. Choose whole grains when possible, because whole grains contain more nutrients, especially magnesium and fiber, than refined grains.

Choose healthy sources of protein and fat

Protein is important for bone health because it is an important component of bone tissue and plays a role in bone maintenance. The best options include plant-based proteins such as beans and nuts, as well as fish, skinless poultry, and lean cuts of meat.

Plant proteins are rich in vitamins, minerals and estrogen-like plant compounds that help preserve bones. Low-fat dairy products, including milk and plain yogurt, are another good source of protein. These products provide calcium, which benefits bone health. Protein should represent 25% to 35% of total daily calories.

You need some fat in your diet for your body to function properly. The best choices are monounsaturated fats, such as those found in olive oil, nuts, and seeds. Cold water fish also provide essential omega-3 fatty acids. Be careful to avoid saturated fats, which have been shown to be harmful to bone health in adults.

Get enough calcium

Calcium is essential for bone health. This mineral is a fundamental building block of bone and helps prevent bone loss and osteoporotic fractures in older people. While the recommended daily intake for adults generally ranges from 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams, the typical diet provides much less.

If you’re not getting enough calcium, try increasing your intake of mineral-rich foods.

Traditional dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese are the richest food sources. For example, an 8-ounce serving of skim, low-fat, or whole milk contains about 300 milligrams of calcium.

Calcium is also found in:

>> Plant milk, including almond, cashew and oat.

>> Food sources rich in calcium, including kale and broccoli.

>> Calcium-fortified foods such as juices, cereals and tofu products.

It can be difficult to get your daily calcium requirement through your diet alone. A calcium supplement may be recommended. But calcium should not be taken alone. Vitamin D is essential for proper calcium absorption, and magnesium helps drive calcium into the bone, keeping it out of soft tissue. Look for a calcium supplement that includes both ingredients.

Limit salt, sugar and phosphate additives

Foods that contain added sugars during processing often provide lots of calories, additives, and preservatives, but offer few health benefits. Limit your intake of processed foods and drinks, such as soda.

Try to reduce the amount of salt in your diet as well. Not only can salt cause high blood pressure, but it can also increase the amount of calcium you excrete from your body when you urinate. Aim for a limit of 2,300 milligrams of salt daily – the equivalent of about 1 teaspoon.

Phosphorus is used as an additive in many processed foods. Too much phosphorus in your diet can interfere with the amount of calcium absorbed by your small intestine.

Check labels on processed foods, but try to choose fresh foods whenever possible.

Limit consumption of alcohol, caffeine

Consuming more than one or two alcoholic drinks a day accelerates bone loss and reduces the body’s ability to absorb calcium. If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means up to one drink a day for women of all ages and men over 65, and up to two drinks a day for men 65 and under. Also note: Drinking alcohol with meals will delay calcium absorption.

Caffeine may slightly increase calcium loss during urination. But much of its potentially harmful effect stems from replacing caffeinated drinks with milk and other healthy drinks. Moderate caffeine consumption – about two to three cups of coffee a day – will not be harmful as long as your diet contains adequate calcium.

With the right lifestyle modifications, you should be able to maintain strong, healthy bones as you age.

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