Osteoporosis is a debilitating disease, which literally means “porous bone” whereby the density and quality of bone are diminished. As bones become more porous and fragile, the risk of fracture is greatly increased. The loss of bone occurs silently and progressively often with no symptoms until the first fracture occurs. Osteoporosis is now diagnosed at earlier ages and its precursor Osteopenia seen in young adults in their twenties and thirties. Approximately one out of three women over 50 will have a fracture due to osteoporosis as will one out of five men over 50. Although genetic factors largely determine the size and density of your bones, lifestyle, nutrition, regular exercise, and avoiding smoking and excess alcohol also play a key role.
At every stage of life, a nutritious, broad diet promotes strong, healthy bones. This includes eating enough calories to sustain your frame throughout your life, moderate protein intake, healthy fat, as well as vitamins D and K and minerals - calcium, magnesium, zinc and boron. In childhood and adolescence, proper nutrition helps to build peak bone mass (maximum bone density, attained in the early 20's) thereby reducing vulnerability to osteoporosis later in life. This is not to say that there are not measures available to older adults but puberty is the optimum time in our lives to build great bones! Restrictive diets, fizzy drinks, caffeine and junk food, most associated with the teenage years, are a recipe for poor bone strength and inhibit the absorption of bone building nutrients at this critical time of growth.
Most of the nutrients needed for bone strength are dependent on healthy fats to aid their absorption and assimilation into the body. A diet that includes nuts, seeds, oily fish, olives, avocado and good quality oils helps build and preserve bone integrity. For those who have had a fracture, it aids recovery and reduces the risk of having another fracture.
Dietary factors that contribute to Osteoporosis include low calcium intake, excess sodium and phosphorous (found in fizzy drinks), high protein diets and trace mineral deficiencies. High protein diets strongly encouraged for weight-loss and body building need to be reviewed to ensure the long-term health of our skeletal frame is not compromised by the short-term gains of these type of diets.
There is inconsistent evidence that the pH of body fluids plays a role in mineral loss from our bones. It has been said that bone loss as well as other diseases, occurs when the body is too acidic, mainly from eating too much meat, dairy, processed foods and refined sugars. While the debate rages on, it is worthwhile to note the words of one great physiologist Homer W Smith who wrote ‘It is no exaggeration to say that the composition of the body fluids is determined not by what the mouth takes in but by what the kidneys keep: they are the master chemists of our internal environment. When, among other duties, they excrete the ashes of our body fires, or remove from the blood the infinite variety of foreign substances that are constantly absorbed from our indiscriminate gastrointestinal tracts, these excretory operations are incidental to the major task of keeping our internal environment in an ideal, balanced state.’ (From Fish to Philosopher, 1953). His theory ties in with ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that connects bone health to kidney health. Although he does not allude to TCM in any of his research, it is interesting that this and much more recent research demonstrates that nutrients which support the smooth running of our kidneys are the same nutrients that promote bone strength. And conversely, foods that are taxing on the kidneys are associated with increased risk of bone disease.
Sea vegetables, tofu, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cabbage, kale, sprouts, sesame and pumpkin seeds provide more nutrients for bone health than any other natural wholefood. Not only are they rich in calcium, they also provide, boron, magnesium and vitamin K. Our bones are made up of minerals we get directly from land and sea plants – or indirectly from the animal products we eat that feed on the same. It makes sense that these are more easily derived straight from the source rather eating our way through the animal kingdom in order to get a good supply. It is worth mentioning that bone broth made from the long-simmering of animal/fish bones in liquid, provides an easily assimilated mineral-rich supply, as the minerals from the boiling bones are leached into the water over time. Other nutrients include collagen, vitamin C and omega 3, which allows for allows for flexibility and elasticity to be maintained in bone tissue. It is easier to break a dried-out, rigid stick than one that can bend and flex when pressure is applied.
Don’t forget your Vitamin D, necessary for the absorption of calcium and involved in many functions associated with bone health. Routine testing and appropriate supplementation are necessary at all stages of life, whether you are building bone, maintaining bone or re-building bone again. As Halloween draws near, all these happy smiley skeletons with their intact bones can be a reminder to take care of our own skeleton by enjoying a (mainly) plant-based diet and regular outdoor exercise for enduring, strong bones and the greater quality of life that comes with them.
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