Eating Right for Bones and Joints

Ronni Gordon Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Correspondent

MARCH 01, 2011

Eating right 

In order to promote the life-long process of building strong bones, babies should be fed calcium-rich foods as soon as they are born. Fortunately, this is readily provided by breast milk (ideally) or formula, which should be a child's sole nutritional source for the first four to six months of life and a major source of nutrition throughout the first twelve months. 

Ensuring adequate calcium intake throughout childhood is critically important, and it remains important for adults, as well.

"Under 25 you're concerned about bone formation. After 25 your bones have grown to the size they're going to be, and it's important to maintain them," says Elisabeth Moore, registered dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

"It's important for the elderly, because bone loss can lead to osteoporosis, fracture and falls," she adds.

Eat Calcium-Rich Foods

Calcium is especially critical in adolescence, when most bone formation occurs.

Dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese provide most of our calcium. Leafy vegetables including broccoli, kale and spinach have a much smaller amount, and you'd have to eat a lot to approach the level in milk. Almonds and fatty fish such as salmon also contain smaller amounts of calcium.

But even though a portion of leafy green vegetables doesn't have the highest calcium content, "These things added together in a healthy diet can contribute to bone health," says Moore.

Similarly, most grains do not have high amounts of calcium unless they are fortified grains, but they contribute to calcium in the diet because they are consumed frequently.

Moore says the general recommendation is three to four servings of dairy or other calcium-rich food a day. One serving is a cup.

For those who are lactose intolerant, alternatives to dairy products include lactose-reduced milk and fortified tofu and other soy-based products. People who cannot tolerate dairy or those who choose not to consume it, such as vegans, can also get smaller amounts of calcium from bok choy, collards, Chinese cabbage, and some grains, fruits and beans.

Get Enough Vitamin D

The body needs calcium to grow and maintain healthy bones, and it needs Vitamin D so the body can absorb that calcium, she explains.

Without enough Vitamin D, your body cannot form enough of the hormone calcitriol, according to the National Institutes of Health. This leads to insufficient calcium absorption from the diet, causing the body to take calcium from its stores in the skeleton, weakening the existing bone and preventing the formation of strong new bone.

Vitamin D is not found in many foods, although milk and cereal are regularly fortified with it. Salmon, tuna and mackerel are among the best sources. Small amounts are also found in beef liver, cheese and egg yolks.

Vitamin D is also important for joint health, as are Omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation. They are found in salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout, Omega-3 fortified eggs, ground flaxseeds, walnuts, seaweed and soybeans.

Limit Your Fat Intake

Of course for heart health, you need to limit your fat intake. Luckily, non-fat or low-fat yogurt, milk and cheese have the same amount of calcium as regular milk, according to Moore.

Read Nutrition Labels

When buying food such as yogurt, check the label, because calcium level varies according to the product. Plain yogurt, for example, may have more calcium than yogurt with fruit.

"More processed yogurt might not have the same amount as one that is less processed," says Moore. Greek yogurt, which is increasingly popular these days, has minimal ingredients and high calcium content.

Limit Carbonated Beverages

In the negative column, Moore explains that carbonated beverages, mainly dark colas, have a high level of phosphates, which can bind to the calcium and decrease its absorption.

Moderation is Key

"Like anything else in life, it's about moderation," she says. "Ice cream has some calcium in it, but you wouldn't want to eat it every day — well, you MAY want to eat it every day, but you shouldn't. Make it an occasional treat."

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Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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