It is estimated that more than 10 million Americans, mostly women, have osteoporosis, a disease in which the bones lose mineral density and become weak and susceptible to fractures. An additional 43 million people are at risk for the condition, and many take calcium supplements to help reduce bone loss.
Although calcium is vital to building strong, healthy bones, supplements alone will not prevent osteoporosis. Many factors contribute to the disease, and some are unavoidable, like age, race, and family history. What you can control, however, are lifestyle choices that contribute to good bone density and health, like eating a healthy diet and exercising.
At EmergeOrtho—Triangle Region, we are committed to osteoporosis prevention and helping patients avoid fractures. This includes a focus on nutrition and exercise.
What to Eat to Prevent Osteoporosis
When you were a child, you were probably told to drink your milk for strong bones. This was good advice then and is still valid as an adult. Eating plenty of foods that contain calcium and vitamin D can help prevent osteoporosis and reduce the risk of fractures in the arms, legs, or spine.
The National Institute on Aging recommends that women over age 50 consume at least 1,000 mg of calcium every day, but not more than 2,000 mg. Although milk and other dairy products (like cheese and yogurt) are rich in this bone-building mineral, you can also get it from eating foods like:
- Leafy greens, like spinach, kale, and chard
- Soybeans and edamame
- Beans and lentils
- Salmon with bones
- Calcium-fortified foods, like whole-grain cereal or orange juice
Vitamin D is also critical to maintaining bone health, as it helps the body absorb calcium. Without it, bones can become brittle, soft, and prone to fracture. NIA recommends that women consume at least 15 mcg (600 IU) of vitamin D every day, but no more than 100 mcg (1,000 IU). However, because vitamin D deficiency is common, your physician may recommend temporarily supplementing additional vitamin D.
Most people get vitamin D through a combination of food and exposure to sunlight. Most of the vitamin D in your body is created by a chemical in your skin that is activated by the sun. Seasonal factors like spending more time indoors and wearing sunscreen can reduce the amount of vitamin D your body produces, making it even more important to eat the right foods.
Many foods rich in vitamin D are the same as those that provide calcium: Milk and dairy products, fortified cereal, and fatty fish like salmon and sardines. Still, if you show signs of a deficiency, taking vitamin D supplements may be more beneficial to your bones than calcium. In fact, without vitamin D, taking calcium supplements may not even help prevent osteoporosis.
The Role of Exercise in Osteoporosis Prevention
Maintaining a healthy diet is not the only way to prevent osteoporosis. Exercising is also critical to healthy bones. Researchers have found a correlation between muscle strength and bone density, noting that a sedentary lifestyle can reduce bone mineral density. Evidence suggests that regular weight-bearing exercise not only improves strength and balance but can also increase mineral density in the bones those muscles are attached to.
Ideally, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days for optimal bone health. Weight-bearing exercises, in which you have to work against gravity, are the best option. These include walking, jogging, tennis, dancing, and similar activities. Lifting weights and other resistance exercises can also help build strong bones.
Can You Take Too Much Calcium?
While supplementing your calcium intake to help prevent osteoporosis is not always a bad thing, it is possible to take too much calcium and do more harm than good.
Taking too many calcium supplements — or supplementing even when you get plenty of the bone-building mineral from food — can cause a condition called hypercalcemia. This means your blood calcium level is too high, which can cause symptoms that range from mildly unpleasant to serious. Effects range from fatigue, headaches, and constipation to cognitive problems, heart dysfunction, and kidney failure.
To prevent hypercalcemia, talk to your doctor before taking calcium supplements to prevent osteoporosis. A blood test to measure levels of calcium and vitamin D can determine whether you need to supplement, and if so, how much you should take.
You should also evaluate your diet and lifestyle before adding supplements. You might be surprised by how much calcium you consume every day. Swapping out your breakfast cereal or morning glass of orange juice with a calcium-fortified version might be all you need to get the recommended amount each day. Do not forget to include the calcium in your multivitamin or any other supplements you take — including antacids — to avoid overdoing it.
Bone Health at EmergeOrtho—Triangle Region
The orthopedic experts at EmergeOrtho—Triangle Region are committed to helping patients achieve maximum bone health. This includes using the most innovative technology to diagnose bone density: dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry or “DEXA” bone density scans. They also provide treatments and interventions to help increase bone density and reduce fractures, which may include advice on how to increase your vitamin D and calcium intake with and without supplements.
If you have concerns about your bone density, have ongoing back pain, or have lost height over the past year, we encourage you to schedule an appointment to learn more about osteoporosis prevention and treatment. Or, call us any time at (919) 220-5255.