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If you’ve seen one of those milk mustache ads, you know you need calcium for strong bones. And it’s not just about building strong bone; it’s about not losing it. The less calcium you get, the more bone you lose. Skimp on this nutrient and your muscles (which also need calcium to function) will act like calcium leeches, sucking that mineral right out of your bones.
So how much is enough? Men and premenopausal women who aren’t pregnant need about the same — 1,000 mg a day; once menopause hits and bone density begins plummeting along with estrogen levels, women need about a third more a day, for a total of 1,300 mg.
The Usual Suspects
Milk is full of calcium, of course. Two to three cups of low- or nonfat milk or yogurt a day will get you what you need. But milk isn’t the only great source; in fact, calcium isn’t the only skeleton supporter. If you don’t do dairy, fortified soy products, such as tofu, also pack a lot of calcium, vitamin D and phosphorus (all part of the bone-strengthening story) into a small serving. Other bone builders include sardines and salmon with edible bones, baked beans, broccoli and leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale. Orange and grapefruit juices — even unfortified ones — also strengthen bones. Researchers at Texas A&M fed subjects freshly squeezed juice every day for two months (sorry, they don’t deliver) — and increased bone density by 6 percent as a result.
Calcium’s Support System
While calcium tends to come off as the lone skeletal superhero, it needs a set of strong sidekicks to effectively come to the rescue. Let’s meet some of calcium’s oft-overlooked super friends.
• Vitamin D: You can eat all the calcium-rich foods you like, but without vitamin D, they won’t do you much good. The reason: Vitamin D allows your body to absorb calcium. Salmon, sardines and shrimp are natural sources of D, but you’ll also find it in fortified milk and orange juice. It’s difficult to get all the D you need from food, though, so taking a vitamin D3 supplement (1,000 IU a day) can help.
• Vitamin K: You can KO hip fractures with this nutrient, say studies. Making a tofu stir-fry? Add in kale, spinach, bok choy, Swiss chard and broccoli to bring up your K count.
• Potassium: Another strong, silent type, this mineral can boost bone density and neutralize the acids that can leach calcium out of bones. Serve up sweet potatoes, yogurt and bananas to get your daily dose. Sports drinks will boast that they carry loads of potassium — but will leave out that they also have loads of calories from sugar. Stick to healthier choices as your regular sources.
• Protein: The last part of your skeleton strategy is to get enough protein. If you’re taking calcium and vitamin D supplements, research shows you may get a bigger boost in bone density with more protein. And good news for vegetarians and vegans: It doesn’t matter whether the protein comes from animal or plant sources.
Don’t Pass the Salt
Building strong bones isn’t just about what you add to your diet, though. Steering clear of bone-depleting foods is key too. First, slow down on salt. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that among those whose calcium intake was under the recommended levels, sodium — present in table salt as well as processed foods such as bacon, lunch meats, salty snacks, canned soups and a host of others — can further leach calcium from the body; in those with adequate levels of calcium, however, sodium’s effect was minimized. Second, take a look at how much coffee you drink. Caffeine may affect bone health in women who don’t get enough calcium, especially as they age.
Turkish cucumber yogurt dip is super quick to make and packs 250 mg of calcium into a half-cup serving. Wash and peel two or three cucumbers, grate them and mix into 2 cups of plain, low- or nonfat yogurt. Try using a thick yogurt, like the Greek type, to prevent the dip from becoming runny. Add four cloves of chopped garlic. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley and 1 teaspoon chopped fresh mint, and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Serve with crackers.
By Dana Sullivan