Osteoporosis is one of those diseases that seems to come with an AARP membership—in other words, not something we should concern ourselves with until retirement. But the truth is that bone density loss starts a lot sooner than many of us realize and will have serious consequences for our physical health if we don’t start taking preventative measures now. And what we should do now to decrease our risk of osteoporosis goes beyond drinking a glass of milk or two a day.
Know how osteoporosis operates.
People afflicted with osteoporosis have extremely brittle bones that break easily. The process starts in our thirties, when the body stops building up calcium stores and actually starts leaching it from our bones. With age, the bone cells that collect calcium in our bones (osteoblasts) stop working as hard and the ones that take it out (osteoclasts) start working overtime. As a result, bones weaken and become prone to fractures. That’s why it’s essential to get a sufficient amount of calcium in our diets from a young age. There’s only so much time we have to feed our supply before our bone mass peaks.
Doing right by our bones involves more than increasing dairy consumption. In fact, whether dairy is the best source of calcium is a controversial subject with studies backing both sides of the debate. The fact is that relying on dairy alone to strengthen bones isn’t a good idea, not to mention impossible for vegans and the lactose intolerant. Instead, we should adopt a variety of habits to ensure our bones stay strong and supportive.
Start doing weight-bearing exercises and strength training.
Similar to muscles, bones are built up by using them regularly and challenging them. They, too, are comprised of tissues that grow when they’re exercised. Movement that requires body weight support, such as walking, jogging, dancing, or climbing stairs, is a great way to make bones stronger. Strength training—which involves lifting weights, doing push ups, or other ways of forcing muscles and bones to resist gravity—builds up bones as well. Exercising also improves balance, so the likelihood of falling and breaking something decreases, too.
Be sure to consult a doctor before beginning a rigorous exercise regimen; there are both low-impact and high-impact exercises that help our bones, and together you can figure out what works best for your body.
Eat calcium-rich foods.
Despite the plethora of milk ads suggesting otherwise, dairy’s not the only game in town when it comes to foods filled with calcium. Dark, leafy greens like kale are excellent sources of calcium, as are tofu, nuts, broccoli, salmon, oats, and calcium-fortified products. (Non-dairy milks and orange juice often fall in this category.)
Spinach, a member of the leafy green family, also boasts a huge amount of Vitamin K, which helps maintain bone health. But it also contains oxalates, which could affect the body’s ability to absorb calcium.
Seek out the sun and other sources of Vitamin D.
In a 2009 study performed by researchers at Copenhagen University Hospital Gentofte and Nottingham University Hospital, older participants who took vitamin D and calcium every day showed a 20 percent drop in hip fractures. Vitamin D regulates the amount of calcium in our bodies to build and maintain strong bones. We can obtain it from some foods (salmon, eggs, cheese, tuna, and fortified products like cereal and orange juice) and from the sun (anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes a few times a week—sans sunscreen—can generate the recommended amount of vitamin D). It’s also possible to ingest it in supplement form.
Limit soda consumption.
Though various studies have found that drinking soda and calcium deficiencies are somehow related, the link itself hasn’t been entirely determined. For example, a 2006 study at Tufts University found that women who drank cola-based sodas a few times a week had lower bone density, but other non-cola sodas like Mountain Dew didn’t have the same effect. Some believe soda’s phosphoric acid contributes to calcium depletion, while others believe soda drinkers tend to make less healthy beverage choices overall (e.g., drinking less milk), which would lead to lowered calcium levels. Either way, sodas don’t improve our health, so they should be an occasional indulgence rather than a daily drink.
Have milk with caffeinated beverages.
Caffeine is often associated with dehydration and vitamin and mineral loss because it’s a diuretic, but research has yet to prove that it does either to the extent that we should eliminate it completely from our diets. Caffeine does cause some calcium excretion, but according to a 2002 study conducted at Creighton University and published in Food and Chemical Toxicology, adding a little milk (or calcium-fortified non-dairy milk) to coffee or tea can offset the damage. As with soda, it might be that people who regularly drink coffee just happen to drink calcium-filled beverages as a result, so as long as you consume caffeine in moderation and are mindful of obtaining calcium otherwise, it shouldn’t contribute to osteoporosis.
Considering just how many Americans are at risk for osteoporosis—the National Osteoporosis Foundation believes it’s somewhere near 44 million people—too many of us aren’t incorporating these important habits into our daily lives. It might seem difficult to make the kind of changes building solid bones requires, such as quitting smoking (tobacco use weakens bones) or performing more weight-bearing exercises, but it’s worth the effort when it means being strong enough to keep active well into old age. Growing older doesn’t have to mean growing weaker, and as long as we take the necessary steps now, we might never know the pain and inhibitions that osteoporosis can bring.