You need sufficient calcium to keep your bones healthy and vitamin D to help your body absorb calcium.
As we age, our bones become more brittle and muscles become weaker, but a nutritious diet now can help preserve bone and muscle strength. Best Foods for strong bones, your body needs two key nutrients: calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is the mineral that strengthens bones and teeth, and vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium while improving bone growth.
Minerals are incorporated into your bones during childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. Once you reach 30 years of age, you have achieved peak bone mass.
Your bones require specific nutrients to stay strong and healthy. Calcium and vitamin D are the two big ones most people recognize, but magnesium, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A, C, and K are also essential for bone health.
If not enough bone mass is created during this time or bone loss occurs later in life, you have an increased risk of developing fragile bones that break easily.
Fortunately, many nutrition and lifestyle habits can help you build strong bones and maintain them as you age.
While daily activities and routines can have an impact on your musculoskeletal system, nutrition and diet also impact your orthopedic health. Here are some foods to add to your diet that help to support strong bones and muscles.
Bones and teeth are two very important parts of the body that are critical to one’s appearance, health, and bodily function. Bones, for example, give the human body its shape and structure. Without bones, one’s body would not be able to support itself. Teeth provide shape to the face, but they are also crucial to one’s survival, as teeth allow people to chew and consume the food that sustains them. Because they are so crucial, people must keep their bones and teeth as healthy as possible.
A healthy diet for bone health should include both calcium and vitamin D, as the calcium helps to strengthen bones and vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium. People can get calcium by consuming dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, and low-fat milk. For people who are lactose intolerant and unable to drink milk, there is soy milk, which is often fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Certain types of food are also fortified with the nutrients that one needs. Orange juice, for example, may be fortified with both vitamin D and calcium.
Some cereals are also fortified with vitamin D. Both vitamin D and calcium can be found naturally in foods such as sardines and wild Alaskan salmon. Eggs contain as much as 6 percent of one’s daily allowance of vitamin D. Other foods that are good for bone health are green, leafy vegetables such as collard greens.
Poor bone health can cause conditions such as rickets and osteoporosis and increase the risk of breaking a bone from a fall later in life.
Natural Foods for Strong Bones
Adults need 700mg of calcium a day. You should be able to get all the calcium you need by eating a varied and balanced diet.
Good sources of calcium include:
- milk, cheese and other dairy foods
- green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage and okra, but not spinach
- soya beans
- plant-based drinks (such as soya drink) with added calcium
- bread and anything made with fortified flour
- fish where you eat the bones, such as sardines and pilchards
Although spinach contains a lot of calcium, it also contains oxalate, which reduces calcium absorption, and it is therefore not a good source of calcium.
Eat Lots of Vegetables
Vegetables are great for your bones.
They’re one of the best sources of vitamin C, which stimulates the production of bone-forming cells. In addition, some studies suggest that vitamin C’s antioxidant effects may protect bone cells from damage.
Vegetables also seem to increase bone mineral density, also known as bone density.
Bone density is a measurement of the amount of calcium and other minerals found in your bones. Both osteopenia (low bone mass) and osteoporosis (brittle bones) are conditions characterized by low bone density.
A high intake of green and yellow vegetables has been linked to increased bone mineralization during childhood and the maintenance of bone mass in young adults.
Eating lots of vegetables has also been found to benefit older women.
A study in women over 50 found those who consumed onions most frequently had a 20% lower risk of osteoporosis, compared to women who rarely ate them.
One major risk factor for osteoporosis in older adults is increased bone turnover, or the process of breaking down and forming new bone.
In a three-month study, women who consumed more than nine servings of broccoli, cabbage, parsley or other plants high in bone-protective antioxidants had a decrease in bone turnover.
Dairy Can Be an Excellent Source of Bone-Building Calcium
There’s a reason dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese always come up in conversations about bone health: They’re loaded with calcium, the main nutrient that contributes to bone strength and structure, according to the NIH. Both a cup of fat-free milk and a cup of plain nonfat Greek yogurt are excellent sources of calcium, according to nutrient estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Whether you choose full- or nonfat dairy products will depend on your personal preference. “If somebody’s trying to lose weight, they may want to stick with lower-fat products,” says Sandy Allonen, MEd, a registered dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
If you’re going the nonfat route, choose foods that have been fortified with fat-soluble vitamins that are key for building strong bones, per American Bone Health, namely vitamin A and vitamin D. “When you pull out the fat, you also pull out the fat-soluble vitamins,” Allonen says.
While beans contain calcium, magnesium, fiber and other nutrients, they are also high in substances called phytates. Phytates interfere with your body’s ability to absorb the calcium that is contained in beans. You can reduce the phytate level by soaking beans in water for several hours and then cooking them in fresh water.
Meat and Other High Protein Foods
It’s important to get enough, but not too much protein for bone health and overall health. Many older adults do not get enough protein in their diets and this may be harmful to bones. However, special high protein diets that contain multiple servings of meat and protein with each meal can also cause the body to lose calcium. You can make up for this loss by getting enough calcium for your body’s needs. For example dairy products, although high in protein, also contain calcium that is important for healthy bones.
Eating foods that have a lot of salt (sodium) causes your body to lose calcium and can lead to bone loss. Try to limit the amount of processed foods, canned foods and salt added to the foods you eat each day. To learn if a food is high in sodium, look at the Nutrition Facts label. if it lists 20% or more for the % Daily Value, it is high in sodium. Aim to get no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
Parmesan cheese is packed with calcium—one tablespoon of shredded Parmesan cheese has 63 milligrams, which is a lot of calcium in a small amount of food. Parmesan cheese is also an excellent source of protein, and it has a bit of vitamin A. The calories aren’t bad either—that one tablespoon has only 21 calories.
Pro tip: buy your Parmesan cheese from the cheese section of the grocery store (skip the grated stuff in the can) and grate or shred it at home, then make these oven-baked cheese crisps.
Rhubarb is high in calcium—one cup of cooked rhubarb has about 350 milligrams of calcium. It’s also a good source of vitamins A and C. Rhubarb is low in calories, but it usually has to be cooked with sugar that adds extra calories.
Pro tip: cook your rhubarb first and add sugar later—you won’t need as much sugar that way.
Figs contain minerals and vitamins that are essential for bone health. One cup of stewed figs has about 180 milligrams of calcium, plus some vitamins C and vitamin K. Raw figs are low in calories and high in fiber, so they’re good for your diet—a couple of raw figs can give you about 24 milligrams of calcium.
Pro tip: buy fresh figs as a snack but eat them right away—they don’t keep for long.
Spinach is an excellent source of just about every nutrient that a plant can offer. Spinach is good for your bones because it’s high in calcium and vitamins A, C and K. It’s also delicious, versatile and low in calories so it really should be a part of everyone’s diet.
Pro tip: use spinach leaves on your sandwiches and as your salad greens in place of iceberg lettuce.
Eating some types of seafood can be a great way to make your bones stronger. Sardines contain more vitamin D and calcium than you might expect. Many of salmon’s positive health effects are already well known, but one thing that might have slipped under your radar is its high vitamin D content. Eating a small piece of salmon gives you more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin D needs. And don’t overlook tuna. This fish can also be a good source of vitamin D and calcium.
Eating eggs is an easy way to get vitamin D. A single egg can cover six percent of your daily vitamin D needs. Cutting out the yolk may be trendy, but that’s where this crucial nutrient lies. So egg whites won’t have the same effect. Eggs also contain other nutrients that can help you stay healthier, so it’s a great food choice even if osteoporosis prevention isn’t your primary concern.
If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, another great food for building healthier bones is tofu. It’s a good source of calcium and offers a lot of other nutrients that promote bone health, including iron, protein, and phosphorous. It’s a versatile food option too. It’s the perfect ingredient for a wide range of culinary creations, no matter what your diet preferences are.
If you want to start your day in a healthy way, opt for a red grapefruit. It provides more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin C needs. This vitamin helps build collagen, which is an important building block for strong bones.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and also supports the muscles needed to protect your bones.
Foods rich in vitamin D include:
- Fatty fish like tuna and mackerel
- Egg yolks
- Foods fortified with vitamin D such as milk, orange juice, and cereals
Having an adequate amount of protein in your diet is key to supporting muscle and bone health. While proteins have many functions throughout the body, in regard to orthopedic health, they are responsible for providing structural support and allow the body to move.
Protein can be found in the following foods:
- Poultry such as chicken and turkey
- Red meats like beef and lamb
- Fish like cod and salmon
- Nuts and seeds like almonds and sesame seeds
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids contain proteins with anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce joint discomfort. Omega-3s can be found in fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines. If you do not eat seafood, you can opt to take a supplement instead.
Get Plenty of Vitamin D and Vitamin K
Vitamin D and vitamin K are extremely important for building strong bones.
Vitamin D plays several roles in bone health, including helping your body absorb calcium. Achieving a blood level of at least 30 ng/ml (75 nmol/l) is recommended for protecting against osteopenia, osteoporosis and other bone diseases.
Indeed, studies have shown that children and adults with low vitamin D levels tend to have lower bone density and are more at risk for bone loss than people who get enough.
Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is very common, affecting about one billion people worldwide.
You may be able to get enough vitamin D through sun exposure and food sources such as fatty fish, liver and cheese. However, many people need to supplement with up to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily to maintain optimal levels.
Vitamin K2 supports bone health by modifying osteocalcin, a protein involved in bone formation. This modification enables osteocalcin to bind to minerals in bones and helps prevent the loss of calcium from bones.
The two most common forms of vitamin K2 are MK-4 and MK-7. MK-4 exists in small amounts in liver, eggs and meat. Fermented foods like cheese, sauerkraut and a soybean product called natto contain MK-7.
A small study in healthy young women found that MK-7 supplements raised vitamin K2 blood levels more than MK-4.
Nevertheless, other studies have shown that supplementing with either form of vitamin K2 supports osteocalcin modification and increases bone density in children and postmenopausal women.
In a study of women 50–65 years of age, those who took MK-4 maintained bone density, whereas the group that received a placebo showed a significant decrease in bone density after 12 months.
However, another 12-month study found no significant difference in bone loss between women whose diets were supplemented with natto and those who did not take natto.
Nuts Provide Magnesium and Phosphorus to Help Strengthen Bones
Nuts contain some calcium, but they also offer two other nutrients essential to bone health: magnesium and phosphorus. Magnesium helps you absorb and retain calcium in the bones, Allonen says. Meanwhile, phosphorus is a key component of bones — roughly 85 percent of the phosphorus in your body can be found in your bones and teeth, according to the NIH.
There are plenty of nut varieties to choose from, including walnuts, peanuts, and pecans, but Allonen advises that almonds are always a good bet. One ounce (a small handful) of almonds is a good source of magnesium and provide some phosphorus, per the USDA.
Salmon is rich in vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids that your bones need to stay strong and healthy, and it’s also an excellent source of protein. Although it’s rich in healthy fats, salmon isn’t high in calories either.
Pro tip: keep canned salmon on hand for quick and easy sandwiches and salads. Bonus if you eat salmon with bones because it ups your calcium intake.
These recipes for spinach and pesto salmon, baked salmon with herbs, and crusted pesto salmon are all tasty and healthy ways to cook your filets.
Soy milk (and soy in general) is a good source of complete protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Soy milk is also typically fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which makes it even better for your bones.
Pro tip: enjoy flavored soy milk but watch out for added calories from sugar—look for lighter varieties.
Pumpkin seeds contain some calcium and protein, but they’re an excellent source of magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids. They’re also high in fiber, so they make a nice snack or addition to salads.
Pro tip: buy pumpkin seeds that have already been shelled—they’re much easier to eat. You can also roast them at home.
Beans Are a Powerhouse Plant Food Loaded With Bone-Friendly Nutrients
All kinds of beans, including black beans, edamame, pinto beans, and kidney beans, serve up a hearty dose of bone-building nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus.
Plus, beans are typically high in fiber and protein, which may be especially helpful for those following a plant-based diet. And contrary to popular belief, eating a plant-based diet, which focuses on reducing animal products, such as meat and dairy, and increasing plant foods like produce, doesn’t have a negative effect on bone health. A vegan diet, which is one plant-based eating plan, isn’t associated with an increased risk of bone fractures if you eat enough calcium, notes past research. The NIH recommends that adults get between 1,000 and 1,300 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day, depending on your sex and life stage.
Plant foods like beans can help you reach that calcium target and provide additional nutrients. For instance, a cup of black beans, which offer 84 mg of calcium, are an excellent source of magnesium and phosphorus, according to the USDA. They are also an excellent source of fiber and are a source of plant protein.