Keeping bones strong and healthy

Almost three million people in the UK are estimated to have osteoporosis, a condition where bones become fragile and may fracture easily.  In the UK, one in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will break a bone mainly because of poor bone health.

Why is bone health important?

Bone is a living tissue and forms the skeleton of our body.  It is important to look after bones throughout life because bone tissue is constantly being renewed. Bones are made of a protein network (which looks like honeycomb) and is strengthened with minerals including calcium and phosphorous which make bones hard. There are a number of lifestyle factors that affect the strength and health of bones, including diet and exercise.

Bone growth

Bones continue to grow and become more dense until our early twenties, when peak bone mass is achieved. There is then a period when bones stay as they are until the age of about 40.  After that bones gradually become less dense and are more likely to fracture.

It is important to optimise bone mass during growth and to maintain the skeleton during adult life in order to reduce the risk of osteoporosis developing in later life. Young children who lack vitamin D can develop a bone deformity known as rickets. There are still cases of rickets in the UK today.

How does what I eat affect bone health?

A number of nutrients play a role in establishing and maintaining healthy bones, in particular, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K.

How much calcium do we need?

The recommended amount of calcium for adults in the UK is 700mg/day. Children, adolescents and women who are breast feeding require slightly more. The major source of calcium in British diets is milk, cheese and yogurt (providing more than 40% of calcium intake amongst adults). If you do not drink cows’ milk you can obtain calcium from plant milks such at Oat Drink and other sources listed below.

Good sources of calcium in the diet are

  • green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage and okra, but not spinach
  • soya beans
  • tofu
  • nuts
  • bread and anything made with fortified flour
  • fish where you eat the bones, such as sardines and pilchards

What about vitamin D?

Vitamin D helps the absorption of calcium from food. Some vitamin D is acquired from the diet but for most people the major source is made in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight. Most people obtain sufficient vitamin D through sunlight exposure during the summer months.

Vitamin D is found in a small number of foods. Good food sources are:

  • oily fish, such as salmon, sardines and mackerel
  • eggs
  • fortified fat spreads
  • fortified breakfast cereals

What other factors affect bone health?

About 80 per cent of our bone health is inherited from our parents. However, there lots of things we can do to influence the remaining 20 per cent including taking regular weight bearing exercise, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol consumption, and giving up smoking.

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