In this article we cover the best foods for strong and healthy bones.
The human body is held together by our skeletal system. This is a network of 206 bones by the time we reach adulthood.
Our body’s skeletal structure serves as its framework.
It allows us stand upright and move around. It also works as a protective barrier for our vital organs.
To keep it healthy and working properly throughout our lives, we need to do our part.
Eating the right foods for healthy bones and working out helps strengthen them. Doing so also allows us to avoid age related diseases like osteopenia and osteoporosis.
The Need to Take Care of Our Bones
Most of us think of bones as being static. The truth is, they’re actually alive.
The same is true for the other organs and tissues in our bodies.
Old bones are broken down, while new ones are formed to take their place. This happens all throughout our lives.
This means that the skeletal system is always changing.
When we are young, the rate at which our body makes new bone is faster than the speed at which old bone is broken down.
Because of this, our bones get stronger during this time.
According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), we reach our peak bone mass between the ages of 18 to 25 years old.
Peak bone mass refers to the time in our lives where our bodies have the most amount of bone.
What’s more important is the higher your peak bone mass the lower your risk of developing osteoporosis later in life.
Problem is, after the age of 30, the balance shifts.
During this time and until we die, the rate at which bone is broken down, outpaces the rate at which new bone is formed.
This makes it important to care for our bone health as we age.
How to Strengthen Bones through Food and Diet
Based on statistics compiled by the International Osteoporosis Foundation, osteoporosis affects over 75 million people in the US, Europe and Japan alone.
This disease affects men. But, women become more susceptible to it after menopause.
As a result, women over the age of 50 years old have a 1 in 3 chance of experiencing a fracture related to osteoporosis. For men, the figure stands at 1 for every 5, or 20%.
This is why we need to get enough of the important bone-building nutrients in our diets. These include calcium, vitamin D, K, and C.
Without enough of one or more of these nutrients, the body won’t be efficient in its bone remodeling process.
This can lead to weaker bones as we grow older.
How Food Strengthens Bones
If you’re like me, you’re probably curious about how what we eat helps build and strengthen bones. After all, food is soft mass while bone is hard material, right?
Here’s a quick video that explains what happens to food we eat and why getting the right foods for bone health is essential.
18 Foods for Healthy Bones
A healthy lifestyle, exercise and proper diet are essential for good health.
Included in this is eating the right foods that help strengthen bones. This helps ward off bone-related issues later on.
Here are some of the foods you should add to your diet to help build strong bones.
There’s a reason our moms told us to drink milk.
It’s a great source of calcium which is the main building block of bone. It is the calcium that keeps our bones and teeth strong.
In fact, 99% of the body’s calcium is stored in our bones and teeth. The rest of the calcium is used by the body for other functions.
According to the USDA Nutrient Database, one 8 oz. glass of milk gives us between 275 mg and 305 mg of calcium. The exact amount will depend on the type of milk you get.
Whole milk gives you a bit less. Skim milk and 1% fat give you the higher end of that range.
This amounts to around 30% of our daily calcium requirement.
Better yet, it is very easy to consume. There’s no chewing involved. Plus, its very affordable.
If you’re calorie conscious, non-fat milk only has 90 calories and packs 8 grams of protein.
To help your body use the calcium, try choosing milk that comes fortified with vitamin D.
Milk is one of the best sources of calcium for bone health.
If you’re looking for something healthier, try yogurt.
Yogurt is a byproduct of milk.
To make yogurt, bacteria is added to milk then left to incubate. The cultures are what give yogurt its thicker texture and tangy taste.
The process however does not reduce the nutrient content.
According to the Dairy Council of California, one cup of fat free yogurt contains 488 mg of calcium (49% DV). A low fat cup has 448 mg (45% DV).
Yogurt also contains a healthy amount of vitamin D. This gives you 30% of your daily requirement in an 8 ounce cup.
One difference between milk and yogurt is the cultures that were introduced to it. These probiotics help with our gut health. They work by improving the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut.
For those who are lactose intolerant, you may find that yogurt is more soothing to your digestive system.
While it does have the same amount of lactose as milk, more people with lactose intolerance seem to be able consume yogurt without experiencing symptoms.
Also, according to Chris Kresser, if you take your time in introducing probiotics and high quality yogurt, you can reduce your lactose intolerance over time.
While dairy is among the primary sources of calcium, it isn’t the only one.
This is good news if you don’t like having dairy in your diet or are lactose intolerant.
One non-dairy source of calcium that’s also very inexpensive is canned sardines.
One 3.75 oz. can of sardines gives you 351 mg of calcium. This accounts for 35% of your daily needs. It is also loaded with vitamin D, containing 44% of the daily value.
Comparing it with milk, it actually comes out ahead in both fronts.
Of course, it’s hard to compare given that one is a solid food and another is in liquid form.
But it terms of serving size, canned sardines in oil beat out milk when it comes to calcium and vitamin D content.
Do note that what’s valuable from a bone health point of view are the tiny, soft edible bones in the sardines. This is where the calcium and vitamin D are.
As a side note, sardines aren’t often the topic of conversation when it comes to heart healthy Omega-3. But, it’s worth noting that this species belongs to that same fatty fish category.
With each can you consume, you get 1,362 mg of Omega 3s. This doesn’t fair too badly to the 1,921 mg of Omega-3 fats in 3 oz. of salmon.
4. Canned Salmon with Bones
Speaking of salmon, it is another option if you aren’t a fan of dairy but want a protein substitute that’s healthy and filled with calcium.
However, there’s a catch.
When most of us think of salmon, we think of the fillets that you can grill or saute on the pan. This is great if you only want the omega-3 benefits.
If you’re after the calcium benefits, you’ll have to skip those and go with the canned salmon that has the bones intact. Like the sardines above, it’s the small edible bones where the calcium is.
Each 3 oz. serving of canned salmon has around 200 mg of calcium depending on the variety. Chum has 212 mg (21% DV), while sockeye has 188 mg (19% DV).
As with other fatty fish, they contain a good amount of protein, vitamin B, and omega 3 fatty acid.
Similar to the canned sardines, they are very easy to add to meals. You can include them in your salad or spread over sandwiches.
If you’re not a fan of canned fish, you can still enjoy salmon fillets.
While they don’t have enough calcium to make them a good source of it, they do contain a good amount of vitamin D. This vitamin helps the body use the calcium.
When choosing fresh salmon for its vitamin D content, do consider getting wild salmon over farmed salmon.
According to a study by the Boston University Medical Center, a 3.5 oz. piece of wild salmon has an average of 988 IU of vitamin D. This is more than 100% of the recommended 600 IU for males and females under the age of 70.
However, farmed salmon only had 25% of the vitamin D content of wild salmon, at around 240 IU.
Calcium, due to its bone forming properties, deserves top billing whenever ossification is being discussed.
But, it’s important to note that you can take all the calcium you want and still not get their full benefits.
Calcium can’t be used by the body on its own. It needs other minerals to help it do so.
At the top of that list is vitamin D. This is the reason why many calcium supplements come with vitamin D.
The body needs Vitamin D to absorb calcium and use it. Not getting enough D vitamin, even if you have sufficient calcium, still results in fragile bones.
Along with other fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines, tuna is a great source of vitamin D.
Tuna is available in its high grade form, sushi, as well as in the much more economical canned form. This gives you the choice of how you want to have it.
What makes it valuable is its vitamin D content. Vitamin D is hard to come by in nature, including food.
So, if you’re not getting enough sunlight, are using sunblock or long sleeves, then fatty fish like tuna is a great way to get it. Another option is through supplements.
One 3 oz. serving of canned tuna offers 345 IU of vitamin D. This is 86% of our daily RDA. In addition, it contains 80% of our daily vitamin K requirements, another important nutrient in bone health.
What makes tuna even more appealing is that it is a low GI (glycemic index) food, that’s high in protein, vitamin B and Omega 3 fatty acids.
6. Collard Greens
Among the healthiest foods in the world, collard greens are something you’ll want to add to your diet if you’re a vegan, don’t eat meat or avoid dairy.
This dark green leafy vegetable is a low calorie way of getting calcium in your diet.
One cup of chopped collards offers 266 mg of calcium (27% DV). This is far more than most vegetables have as calcium isn’t something that’s abundant in most plants.
Along with calcium, it contains magnesium (10% DV), which is needed to balance out calcium, as well as a lot of vitamin K (1045% DV).
Collards are a great addition especially for those on a diet. It has no cholesterol, is low in fat, and contains protein and fiber.
Normally, we’d have spinach along with collards.
One cup of Popeye’s favorite food gives you close to what collards do, around 25% of your calcium requirements. Plus, it has potassium, magnesium and vitamin K. All of which aid in bone development.
Problem is, spinach contains oxalates.
Foods that are high in oxalates don’t allow the body to absorb calcium well. As a result, this reduces the bone aiding effects of the calcium in spinach.
7. Kale and Turnip Greens
Along with collards, other non-dairy options that are excellent sources of calcium are kale and turnip greens.
Most dark green leafy vegetables like watercress and arugula are great options as well.
These are all good choices for vegetarians and non-dairy consumers.
While they don’t pack as much calcium in them as milk does, they do still contain a good amount.
One cup of turnip greens offers 19% of our daily calcium needs. A cup of kale has 10%.
They are also rich in vitamins A and C. Plus, they’re low calorie and low fat.
These 2 vegetables also contain vitamin K. This nutrient is essential for bone health.
It assists in improving bone mineral density. And, along with vitamin D, helps in bone metabolism.
8. Soy Products
One protein alternative for non-meat and non-dairy eaters is soy.
Soy comes in many forms. They range from the ever popular tofu to edamame and even soy milk.
Most soy products offer some calcium benefits.
They’ll often give you anywhere from 5% to 10% of your daily calcium RDA per 1 serving.
But, if you wanted to get the best bang for your buck, go with tofu. This is especially true with the calcium fortified ones.
Half a cup of tofu offers 43% of the calcium we need daily. It also contains a 36% of iron.
Prefer drinking over eating?
You can grab a cup of calcium fortified soy milk as an easier to consume option.
One extra advantage of consuming soy products is that they are rich in isoflavones.
Numerous studies have shown that isoflavones is beneficial is preserving bone mass and increasing bone mineral density in the spine.
9. Tomato Products
If you’re a fan of pizza, red pasta or tomatoes, you’ll be happy to know that not only are you getting the antioxidant benefits of lycopene, which is what gives tomatoes their bright red color, but you’re also helping your bones.
Along with its abundance of vitamin A, C and E, one cup of tomato sauce contains 46 mg of magnesium. This is 12% of the daily value.
Calcium and vitamin D often take the spotlight with bone health. But one of the unsung heroes of bone development is magnesium. Without it, we won’t be able to enjoy healthy bones.
Magnesium is vital in that the body needs it to convert vitamin D to its active form. Vitamin D, whether through food or supplement, can’t be used by the body until it is converted by magnesium into a form the body can process.
Without enough magnesium, the body isn’t able to produce enough vitamin D that’s needed to absorb calcium.
Tomatoes also contain vitamin K and potassium. These are 2 crucial nutrients needed in the bone building process.
Okra is one of those vegetables that people either love or hate.
It can have that squishy slimy feel to it when not cooked the right way. But, this vegetable can offer a nice texture to your dish.
Okra may not look as appealing as many of the other vegetables out there. But, it offers health benefits.
It has a natural blood sugar lowering ability. And, it helps strengthen bones. The latter is due its calcium, vitamin K and magnesium content.
Each cup of okra has 123 mg of calcium (12% DV). It also has 7% of our daily magnesium requirement. This gives you a good ratio of calcium and magnesium that’s often tipped towards the side of having too much calcium.
To add to it, that same cup contains 40% of your daily vitamin K recommended dietary allowance.
One other dairy product that comes from milk is cheese.
While only gourmands eat cheese on its own, most of us like adding cheese to make food taste even better.
This can be adding a slice of cheese to our burgers. Or, adding extra shredded cheese to our pasta and pizza.
Whatever it may be, this decadent dairy product is something Americans consume a lot of.
As of 2013, it is estimated that on average, each person consumes close to 34 lbs. of cheese a year.
The good news is, 1 slice of cheddar cheese contains 20% of our daily calcium needs.
Depending on the type of cheese you eat, they’ll have different levels of calcium in them. Cheese also contains a bit of vitamin D. But, the amount is not sufficient enough to make it a good source of the nutrient.
With cheese, it is important to remember that it can make you gain weight. Each slice of cheddar for example, has 113 calories.
So while delicious, we all need to eat it in moderation.
Behind the dark, green leafy vegetables, another veggie you can count on for shoring up your body’s calcium’s stores is broccoli.
Broccoli is a very healthy food.
It has been shown to help with lowering cholesterol. And, it also helps detoxify the body.
When it comes to assisting in strong bones, each cup contains just over 6% of our daily recommended calcium intake. This may not be a big number, but it definitely helps especially if you’re not into dairy or meat.
In addition to calcium, broccoli also contains magnesium (7% DV) and vitamin K (245%). Both of these nutrients are needed to build strong bones.
The abundance of vitamin K in broccoli makes it very helpful when you’re using vitamin D supplements. Together with vitamin A, the K vitamin helps balance vitamin D metabolism.
Research has shown that individuals with higher levels of vitamin K have higher bone density. On the other hand, people suffering from osteoporosis have low vitamin K levels.
Walnuts are considered a healthy snack food. This is because they offer a good amount of protein, and fiber.
More importantly, they contain healthy polyunsaturated fats. These fats help lower the risk of developing cardiac disease.
One extra advantage of these healthy fats is that they’ve been shown to help strengthen bones.
A study done by scientists at Penn State University found that walnuts, as well as flaxseed oil, aided in slowing down the breakdown of bone. At the same time, they helped keep the rate of bone formation steady.
The study focused on seeing the effects of plant based Omega 3 fatty acids on bone health.
While on the topic of nuts, there are a number of nuts that contain a good amount of calcium. Among which the highest being almonds.
Each serving of almonds, which is around 23 kernels, contains 7% of our daily calcium RDA.
One thing to note with nuts, including walnuts and almonds, is that they contain a considerable amount of oxalates. The oxalates prevent efficient calcium absorption. So, you don’t get most of their content.
This is why almonds are not in our list.
They are however, still a very healthy snack food when eaten in moderation.
Seeds aren’t often a part of our diets.
But, with the many health benefits they offer, they might be something worth adding if you aren’t already consuming them.
Like nuts, seeds come in many forms. There are flaxseeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and many others.
Seeds are often high in healthy fats. They also contain good amounts of dietary fiber. These are reasons why they aid in weight loss and lower your risk of heart disease.
When it comes to strong bones however, it is the magnesium content in seeds that make them very valuable. How much magnesium you get varies by the seed type.
For example, 1 ounce of dried sunflower seeds have 23% of our daily needs. An oz. of pumpkin seeds provides 18% of the daily value.
Among the other good options are flaxseed, chia seeds and sesame seeds. These contain a good amount of magnesium.
One thing to note with seeds is the issue of phytates. Phytates, like oxalates, block absorption of several nutrients, among them calcium.
Eggs are among the healthiest foods around.
They’re also very versatile. You can cook them in many ways or use them as an ingredient with different cooking techniques.
Better known for their protein content, eggs are full of other nutrients as well.
One whole egg contains 10% of vitamin D and 2% calcium.
The calcium content doesn’t really offer much. But, its vitamin D is substantial. This is especially true considering that vitamin D isn’t too abundant in food.
With eggs, the vitamin D is found in the yolk.
So, if you’re only eating the egg whites, then you aren’t benefiting from any vitamin D.
16. Fortified Foods
If you’re having difficulty finding the right foods to get your fill of calcium and vitamin D, then you can look towards the breakfast aisle of your supermarket.
Most breakfast products are now fortified with calcium and vitamin D. This is the same concept that’s used to fortify orange juice with vitamin C.
Breakfast foods like cereals, breads, snacks as well as some juices are being enhanced with vitamins and minerals. This help kids and adults get the needed daily amounts.
Do note that not all brands do this.
So, reading the nutrition label is important. This way you can see whether the manufacturer has added vitamins or minerals.
These products don’t naturally contain calcium, nor vitamin D. But, they do have them. This is because they are fortified with certain minerals and vitamins during the manufacturing process.
17. Olive Oil
Olive oil is one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet.
This healthy source of fat is also credited with providing better health to anyone who uses it.
It does this by offering protective cardiovascular effects.
This gives it the distinction of not only being anti-inflammatory but also anti-osteoporosis.
It’s another good reason to use olive oil in your meals.
Do keep in mind that you’ll want to use it in moderation since it’s still a fat, albeit a good one.
Normally, you aren’t going to find many fruits that help with bone health.
Grapefruit may be one of the few exceptions.
In a study done by the Texas A&M University, grapefruit juice with the pulp, was able to slow down bone loss and improve bone strength.
It also increased the levels of magnesium and calcium in the body.
While the researchers aren’t sure of what allowed red grapefruit juice to do this, the scientists believe that the antioxidant properties of the fruit play a role. It is what allowed the fruit to improve the mineral deposits in the bone.
Since the research was done on animals (rats), we aren’t sure how it affects humans. Further studies will be needed to validate the findings.
Do You Need Calcium and Vitamin D Supplements for Strong Bones?
When it comes to nutrients, we always recommend trying to get them from food. They’re the best sources. And, they come in natural form.
But, that isn’t always possible.
If you have a busy lifestyle, or are vegan, then supplements may help. They are a good way to ensure that your body gets enough vitamins and minerals for it to be healthy.
The 2 main supplements for bone health are:
- Vitamin D
We also feel that getting a good magnesium supplement is important as most people are deficient in the mineral.
As far back as the 2006, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed that at least half of the US population don’t get enough magnesium.
For bone development, magnesium is essential in order for calcium to be absorbed by the body.
Note that supplements are just that.
They are there to supplement what you’re not able to get from food. They’re not designed to take the place of food.
When it comes to these nutrients, these are how much you need daily, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Eating the right foods for healthy bones is one of the most important things anyone can do. It helps prevent osteopenia or osteoporosis later in life.
Together with a good resistance training program the foods above will let you enjoy good bone mineral density.
This way, you can do what you enjoy most even as you get older.