By Isadora Baum
We spend a ton of time focused on our muscles and monitoring our body fat—but because our bones are hidden, we just don’t think about them as much. And hey, osteoporosis—isn’t that something just old ladies get?
Well, no bones about it (sorry), bone density is super-important. Low bone density can lead to joint weakness and injury, and if bone deteriorates too quickly, risk of osteoporosis and osteopenia is real even for people as young as their 20s, say experts at WebMD.
Luckily, there are some simple diet tweaks you can make today to strengthen your body’s structure.
BONING UP ON THE SUBJECT
“Osteoporosis is when a person’s bones become weak and brittle because new bone is not being made fast enough to keep up with the body’s removal of old bone. This could be due to several factors like your age, race, family history and lifestyle choices,” explains Partha Nandi, MD, creator and host of Emmy award-winning “Ask Dr. Nandi.”
But before you just grab milk or cheese, “Even if you’re getting enough calcium, if you’re not absorbing it, and also excreting too much, your bones will be at risk,” warns registered dietician Keri Glassman, CDN, founder of Nutritious Life.
Osteoporosis also can be caused by over-exercise, smoking, eating disorders, certain medications (such as thyroid medication, steroids, and anti-seizure drugs), and deficiency in calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D.
Symptoms of early bone loss are hard to detect, but once a person has osteoporosis, symptoms include frequent bone fractures, poor posture, a decrease in height, back pain, and fragile stature.
HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Since bone density loss is tough to gauge until it’s a real problem, here are some foods to cut back on (or eliminate) to help keep your skeleton happy:
- Caffeine: Back away from the triple espresso. “Drinking more than three cups of tea or coffee can get in the way of calcium absorption, as caffeine disrupts it,” Maggie Moon, MS, RDN, author of The MIND Diet, tells Clean Plates.
- Salt: “Eating overly salty food stimulates calcium excretion through the kidneys, which can take away from your bone density over time,” explains Nandi. Registered dietician-nutritionist Lauren Harris-Pincus says, “the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends a limit of 2300mg per day. Try to monitor processed and canned foods with added salt as well at the amount of salt you use in cooking.”
- Phytates: “Commonly found in whole grains and beans, phytates can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb calcium,” says Harris-Pincus. You can reduce the phytate level by soaking grains and beans in water for several hours, then rinsing and cooking them in fresh water. (Soaking for 7+ hours, such as overnight is optimal.) Beans that are highest in phytates include navy, kidney, and soy. Beans and legumes that are lowest include white, chickpea, and lentil.
- Oxalates: “Spinach is a powerhouse healthy food, but it contains oxalates, a compound that binds with calcium, making it difficult for the body to absorb,” registered dietician Pam Nisevich Bede, sports dietitian with Abbott’s EAS Sport Nutrition, tells Clean Plates. Topping a spinach salad with cheese could help you reap a portion of the calcium benefits to counteract those lost from the spinach, advises Bede. Other oxalate-containing foods include rhubarb, certain beans such as navy, kidney, and soy, and even chocolate, says Harris-Pincus.
- Soda: Drinking a lot of soda has been linked to a reduction in bone mineral density and a heightened risk for bone fracture, warns Bede. Livestrong reports that “women who drink an average of six servings of soda per day for just six weeks could see a notable—between 3 and 6 percent—drop in their bone mineral density.” Glassman adds that the phosphoric acid content in soda increases calcium excretion in urine.
- Processed Meats: Hot dogs, cured beef, breakfast patties/links, and salty deli meats can trigger bone density loss due to the meat’s nitrites, which can remove calcium from the bones by depleting glutathione content. They are also super salty, which is bad for bones in general, says Moon.
- Alcohol: “Drinking in excess can interfere with the calcium balance in your body by inhibiting the enzyme that turns vitamin D into the active usable form of vitamin D, which is needed by the body for calcium absorption,” says Glassman. “Drinking more than two to three drinks per day can lead to bone loss,” says Moon.
FINDING A “PHOS” BALANCE
Along with reducing risky foods, you can also stay on top of phosphorus balance, the sweet spot where calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D work together to achieve an equilibrium for optimal bone health, explains Structure House’s registered dietitian Benjamin White, PhD.
“Phosphorus is in many different foods and is fine in moderation, but too much throws off the balance in our bodies to the point that bone is broken down,” White says. “People get a lot of their phosphorous from meats and cheeses, as well as chocolate, beer, and cola.”
White suggests sticking to about six ounces of meat and cheese per day and limiting sugary sodas. Also be wary of labels that say “phos,” like disodium phosphate or phosphoric acid, White adds.
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet can also improve bone health. A new study from The Ohio State University found that women who ate anti-inflammatory diets had less bone density loss when compared to women who ate inflammatory diets (high in sugar, fried and processed foods, trans fats).
Add some (or more) of these anti-inflammatory foods to your plate:
- Leafy greens
- Beans low in phytates, such as white beans, lentils, and chickpeas
- Baby bok choy
- Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and albacore tuna
- Olive oil
- Spices, such as turmeric and ginger
- Alliums, such as garlic and onions