Despite their appearance, your bones are living tissues that constantly break down and rebuild. This cycle happens over and over throughout your lifetime, where the foundation of bone—proteins, minerals, and collagen—works together to create a strong and healthy structure, measured by bone mineral density (BMD).
Your diet pattern—meaning the food you eat daily—plays a significant role in bone health. It's not the only factor, but it's essential. Think of bone-building as a recipe. If you leave out one ingredient, your cake won't rise, or your meal won't taste as good. The same goes for bone building: without the right nutrients, bones can't remain healthy and strong.
What dietary change should you make for bone health? It involves eating more bright, vibrant, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables. But before diving into the details, here's why nutrition matters for bone health in the first place.
How Diet and Nutrition Affect Your Bone Health
Nutrition research often focuses on one nutrient at a time, exploring how it contributes to bone health and whether an increase or decrease of that nutrient boosts bone mass and prevents bone fractures. It's absolutely true that certain nutrients are critical for maintaining bone mineral density and lowering rates of bone loss for older adults. But the truth is that all these essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients work together in your diet to optimize bone health.
For example, eating calcium-rich foods is usually the primary recommendation for bone health—which makes sense since nearly all the calcium stored in your body is found in the bones. You need enough calcium to build bones and keep them strong (NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases, 2018). Still, without other nutrients like vitamin D or magnesium, your body may be unable to use the calcium to build bones.
Vitamin D helps transport calcium to bones, teeth, and other tissues (Christakos, 2011). Less than optimal vitamin D levels can negatively impact calcium absorption (Khazai, 2008).
Magnesium helps with calcium absorption and activates vitamin D so the body can use it (Castiglioni, 2013). And don't forget about vitamin K, which also helps send calcium to the bones to maintain bone density, or vitamin C, which assists with bone building and collagen formation (Hao, 2017, Gabbay, 2010)
Vitamins and minerals aren't the only nutrients that impact bone health—protein is also vital for building strong bones. Like calcium, protein is essential for bone formation. Plus, all cells in your body are made of protein—including bone cells (Wallace, 2019).
Fatty acids, especially omega-3 fatty acids in fish, could also be protective. Studies show that men and women who eat more fish have higher BMD, possibly related to the combination of protein and omega-3s (Farina, 2011). Inflammation is a risk factor for bone loss that increases the risk of osteoporosis, but omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties to help protect bones (Mangano, 2013, Redlich, 2012).
Antioxidants and phytochemicals are also bone-supportive. Antioxidants are natural compounds found in fruits and vegetables that protect the body from damage caused by free radicals and may help by reducing the activity of cells that break down bone (Domazetovic, 2017).
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring compounds in certain food sources with protective and disease-preventing benefits. Dried plums, for example, contain phenolic acids, flavonoids, and other phytochemicals linked to better bone health (Wallace, 2017).
In other words, it's not enough to say there's only one nutrient for bone or overall health. Instead, the synergistic combination of nutrients in your food promotes strong bones.
Foods For Healthy Bones
A diet that includes a variety of whole foods for bone-building nutrition is the key to maintaining bone strength. While supplementation may seem like a good idea to boost bone health, eating real food is always the best place to start.
Studies on the amount of calcium consumed, for example, clearly show it's a must for strong bones, but research on whether calcium supplements help reduce the risk of fracture (a major concern for people with osteoporosis) is inconclusive (at least for people who aren't deficient) (Bolland, 2015).
Here are some of the top foods for healthy bones:
- Leafy greens
- Dairy products like yogurt or cheese
- Fruit like oranges, berries, or apples
- Beans and legumes
- Whole grains and cereals
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish like wild salmon or sardines
- Olive oil
- Lean protein like chicken or turkey
Foods to limit:
- High-sugar or processed foods
- Excess alcohol (more than one or two a day)
- Excess caffeine (more than two cups of coffee daily)
It's worth noting that moderate amounts of alcohol, primarily red wine, may have bone health benefits for postmenopausal women (Tucker, 2009). Red wine contains resveratrol, a polyphenol that may support bone-building cells while inhibiting cells that break down bone to prevent bone loss (Sahni, 2015).
Dietary Changes for Osteoporosis
What happens if you've already been diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia, can a healthy diet still make a difference? The answer is yes. Depending on the level of bone loss, dietary choices in combination with physical activity (and medication if needed) can help support bone mass.
All the above diet recommendations still apply, but you may need to focus on specific nutrients. For example, those with osteoporosis might benefit from higher calcium intake, vitamin D, or other nutrients (Sunyecz, 2008). Always check in with your doctor if you aren't sure.
The One Dietary Change You Should Make For Bone Health
Choosing one dietary change may seem like it goes against everything you just read above. If the nutrients in food work together to support bone health, why focus on just one?
The answer is that this change isn't about a specific ingredient or food but adapting your eating pattern to include more nutrient-dense whole foods.
If you're ready to take charge of your bone health, the one dietary change you can make today is to eat 5 to 7 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Even better? Replace your packaged or processed items with these foods.
Why? Fruits and vegetables provide many micronutrients, antioxidants, and polyphenols needed for bone health. Plus, packaged foods have additives that could be detrimental to your bones. Diets high in processed foods are linked to lower BMD, while foods emphasizing fruits and vegetables support optimal bone health and less BMD loss (Hardcastle, 2011; Okubo, 2006; Macdonald, 2004).
Having a balanced diet that includes other foods containing protein and healthy fats is still important, but by filling your plate with fruits and vegetables, you can get a good start on improving your bone health. Eat a rainbow variety of fruits and vegetables to get the most benefit—and your body will thank you.