After the age of 50, it is estimated that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men will suffer a fracture. Lite n’ Easy Dietitian Fleur Lesslie discusses the important part nutrition plays in managing bone health.
Osteoporosis is defined as a loss of bone mass and strength that results in brittle, fragile bones that fracture easily – even as a result of a minor fall, a bump, a sneeze, or a sudden movement. Fractures due to osteoporosis can result in chronic pain, loss of mobility, independence, and even premature death. Healthy bones are so important for helping seniors to stay active and independent and enjoy a good quality of life.
Calcium and Vitamin D are two important nutrients for keeping bones healthy. When we are young these nutrients help us to build bone strength to protect us from developing osteoporosis in later life. When we get older, continuing to include adequate calcium and Vitamin D is necessary to maintain our bones as we age.
Calcium represents a large portion of what makes up our bones and is one of the most important nutrients for preventing osteoporosis. After the age of 50, our calcium requirements increase, and this is because our bones are no longer producing enough new tissue to offset bone mass loss due to general wear and tear.
Due to the nature of our bodies, standard X-rays and blood tests are unable to detect deficiencies in our bone health – having normal calcium levels in a blood test does not mean that you have healthy bones! Bone mineral density testing, such as a DEXA scan, is considered the gold standard for picking up the early signs of osteoporosis, however, this may not be accessible to everyone. Therefore, ensuring our diet provides adequate calcium is the first step in prevention.
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that most Australians consume 2-3 servings of milk or milk alternatives per day, to ensure they are getting enough calcium to look after their bones.
Women over the age of 50 are actually recommended to consume 4 servings per day, as they are at a particularly high risk of osteoporosis due to hormonal changes. A serving is 1 cup of cow’s milk, 200g yogurt, or 40g cheese.
If dairy needs to be avoided, soy milk is the best alternative, as it is typically fortified with calcium, vitamin D and B12, and contains a similar amount of protein to cow’s milk. Almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk, and other products contain much less protein unless they have been fortified, and often do not have added calcium or other vitamins and minerals. For this reason, it’s important you check the label if consuming these products.
Although dairy is the best quality and most abundant source of calcium, other foods such as sardines, tinned salmon, and tofu also contribute to meeting your overall daily requirements.
Where adequate calcium intake isn’t possible, a calcium supplement may be required. These are often coupled with vitamin D to help absorption, however, should only be taken as directed by your healthcare team.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone that is essential for calcium absorption and forming bones. In Australia, the main source of vitamin D is from exposure to the sun. Food cannot provide an adequate amount of vitamin D because it is only found in a limited number of foods (e.g. egg yolks, liver, oily fish) and in small quantities. Without adequate vitamin D, the calcium in our diet cannot be absorbed, and this can negatively impact the strength of our bones
With a lot of us spending more time at home and indoors, this can be bad news for our bone health. In summer, a few minutes mid-morning or mid-afternoon is generally adequate for vitamin D, and in winter longer exposure times are needed.
Sensible sun exposure is key as skin cancer, specifically, melanoma, is a very real risk in Australia. Try to avoid peak UV times, remember to slip, slop, slap, and make sure you book a yearly skin check with your doctor.
World Osteoporosis Day is dedicated to raising global awareness of the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of osteoporosis and metabolic bone disease. Slowing bone loss and increasing bone mass is essential for preventing osteoporosis. Having a healthy balanced diet, staying active, getting regular health checks, and being aware of common risk factors are all ways you can support your bones and ensure a great quality of life.