On the Table

What to eat to build strong bones

CORRESPONDENTJune 19, 2012 

My annual trek to the doctor ended the same way last month as it does every year: She recommended that I take a calcium supplement and vitamin D.

I don’t take supplements, and despite the repeated advice to do so, I didn’t start. A new report has provided renewed vindication.

A draft report by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found no benefits to taking the standard commonly recommended supplemental doses of vitamin D and calcium for the prevention of osteoporosis in healthy post-menopausal women. Because there’s a slight increased risk of kidney stones from calcium supplements, the report recommends against daily supplementation at standard doses of 400 IU or less of vitamin D and 1,000 milligrams or less of calcium.

I feel better than ever about all of that broccoli I’ve been eating. You should, too.

That’s because the available evidence shows that the best way to healthy bones is a nutrient-rich diet of whole foods and regular, weight-bearing exercise.

In addition to getting regular doses of moderate to vigorous physical activity most days, follow these tips for getting calcium naturally through the foods you eat:

• Eat more frequent and bigger portions of calcium-rich fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts including broccoli and bok choy, kale, okra, all sorts of greens, including collards, turnip greens and mustard greens, red and white beans, dried figs, almonds and sesame seeds – and blackstrap molasses, too.

• Stick with nonfat and low-fat dairy products if you buy cheese, yogurt or milk.

• Watch your sodium intake, since excessive amounts can cause your body to lose calcium.

• Moderate your protein intake, especially from sources high in sulfur-containing amino acids. Too much may increase loss of calcium from bone. Foods high in sulfur-containing amino acids include eggs, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, nuts and grains.

The most practical approach is to eat more plant-based meals rich in green leafy vegetables and other plant foods that are high in calcium.

Put your effort and your money into good foods. They’re the only supplements most of us need.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor in the departments of Health Policy and Management and Nutrition in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net and follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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