Bone Strength Tied To More Than Calcium

(The Monterey County Herald/TNS) -

“Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” my mom used to say. That’s why we always had plenty of food for holidays … and why I still tend to over pack when I travel.

When it comes to nutrition, this wisdom could apply to the process of building strong bones. Before babies are born, calcium and other bone-building nutrients are mobilized to develop their skeletal structure. During childhood, bones continue to grow in size and density. Peak bone mass — when our bones achieve their genetically determined optimal size and density — occurs for most of us between the ages of 18 and 25 years.

As we get older, we begin to lose more bone than we make, says the National Osteoporosis Foundation. And this is when earlier investments in our bone bank begin to pay off. If we don’t have it when we need it, we can develop osteoporosis, or “porous bones.”

Definitely, then, the most critical time to invest in bone building and strengthening is during the younger years. As we mature, our food choices help maintain what we have. An adequate supply of calcium and protein, for example, adds strength and flexibility to our skeletal frame. And physical activity helps pump calcium into bones. A simple carton of yogurt before volleyball practice or a walk on the beach can help fortify bones, for example.

Vitamin D is essential as well. It helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorous, the minerals that give bones their strong framework. Without adequate vitamin D — from sunshine, food or supplements — bones become thin and brittle.

Collagen, a protein that allows our bones to bend without breaking, is manufactured in the body with the help of vitamin C. Think about that next time you grab an orange or throw some strawberries on your cereal.

Other nutrients critical for building and maintaining bone mass include potassium, magnesium and zinc — found in foods such as green leafy vegetables, beans, meat, fish, nuts and whole grains.

Got the picture? Bone building takes more than calcium. Bones need a healthy dose of nutrients from all the major food groups, including fruits, vegetables, proteins and high-calcium foods. Here are some good-for-your-bones foods:

  • Milk, yogurt, cheese, fatty fish like sardines and salmon, fortified soy beverages (calcium, protein, vitamin D)
  • Collard, turnip and mustard greens, kale, Chinese cabbage (bok choy), broccoli (calcium, potassium)
  • Tomatoes, raisins, prunes, bananas, spinach, potatoes, oranges (potassium)
  • Red and green peppers, oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, papaya (vitamin C)
  • Nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, yogurt (magnesium, zinc)

Like my mother said, “Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.”


Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at