Building Healthy Bones… and keeping them strong!
Updated: Aug 29
As athletes and active people, it’s easy to get focused on fueling for training and recovery… but sometimes the fueling for overall health and life (or growth as younger athletes) is a second thought.
A key aspect of fueling I focus on with all my athletes is building and maintaining strong healthy bones. We don’t only need them for our sport and performance, but we need them for life!
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If we have strong bones it means we’re at a lower risk of injuries, bone breaks and fractures. It also means we’ve got happy hormones, energy balance, and can stay physically active for longer as we get older.
So, what are good bone foods to be eating, and why exactly? Let’s explore!
FOODS TO BE EATING TO SUPPORT STRONG BONES:
CALCIUM RICH FOODS:
Cow’s milk OR fortified plant milks (look to see if they have 120mg of calcium per 100ml)
Ricotta and cottage cheese
Salmon and sardines
Firm tofu that’s calcium set (look for calcium sulphate added or ‘516’)
Fortified cereals (helpful if plant based athlete)
OTHER KEY BONE NUTRIENT RICH FOODS:
Tuna, trout and mackerel
Pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds
Lean meats and poultry
Brown rice, quinoa, rolled oats
Lentils, chickpeas and black beans
A range of colourful fruit and veg
When we look at bone foods, I like to focus particularly on calcium. That’s because if you’re meeting your calcium needs, you’re most likely going to be getting enough phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin D and protein - which are all important for bone building too! (See more further down).
Guidelines suggest the following amounts for certain population groups:
Children 4-8 yrs = 700mg
Children 9-11yrs = 1000mg
Adolescents 12-18yrs = 1300mg
Women 19-50yrs = 1000mg
Women 51-70yrs = 1300mg
Men 19-70yrs = 1000mg
Men and Women over 70yrs = 1300mg
But what does that look like? Aiming for 3-4 calcium rich foods each day should do the trick. Especially dairy based foods.
Cereal pre/post training with 1/2-1 cup milk and or yoghurt
Milky smoothie as a snack or around training (with 1/2-1 cup milk)
40g Cheese on sandwich/ crackers or in a meal
150-200g yoghurt as a snack - add nuts, fruit and or muesli/granola
Calcium set Tofu in lunch meal
Broccoli and or okra in dinner meal
Custard for dessert or pre-training with fruit
EXERCISE TO SUPPORT BONES
While all forms of exercise are typically good for us; there are certain types of exercise that support healthy bones. They are the ones that provide loading to the bones, such as:
Running and walking (so that includes football, hockey, track, etc)
Plyometric work - jumps, hops, skipping, track and field sports
Netball, basketball, tennis, dancing, aerobics,
That’s why it’s important to lift weights or do plyo work if you’re a water-based athlete or cyclist.
FOODS TO LIMIT OR THINGS TO AVOID
Avoid smoking, recreational drugs and vaping
Excessive sodium (doesn't include sports nutrition when replacing sweat losses)
IT’S A BALANCING ACT
While you may need to, or want to add more calcium rich foods to your day, don’t go drinking milk with every meal! Calcium is absorbed in the body similarly to zinc and iron which are two other very important micronutrients we need. Especially athletes and active people.
As for a lot of things, variety is key. If you eat a range of different foods and colours across (most) days and weeks, you will most likely be meeting your needs. But if you are unsure, you can always reach out to me or another sports dietitian!
If you’re needing to boost your iron and or zinc from foods, as well as calcium, my tip is to:
Have iron and zinc rich meals and then go for calcium rich snacks
This way they’re eaten a couple hours apart and won’t interact too much when being absorbed
If you’re taking both iron and calcium supplements, take calcium in the morning and iron at night (as taking iron at night actually can increase the absorption of it too!)
KEY NUTRIENTS FOR BONES:
1. Calcium: The Foundation of Bone Health
Calcium is the cornerstone of bone health. It forms the structural framework of bones and helps maintain bone density. Dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese are excellent sources of calcium, but if you're lactose intolerant or prefer non-dairy options, fortified plant-based milks, leafy greens (such as kale and broccoli), fortified soy/almond/ coconut yoghurts, calcium set tofu, and almonds can provide your daily calcium needs.
2. Vitamin D: Enhancing Calcium Absorption
Vitamin D works hand in hand with calcium by promoting its absorption in the body. Exposure to sunlight is a natural way to synthesize vitamin D, but dietary sources are important too. Fatty fish (like salmon and mackerel), egg yolks, and fortified foods like cereal and orange juice can contribute to your vitamin D intake.
3. Magnesium: The Mighty Mineral
Magnesium is often overlooked as important for bones, but it's a key component. It helps convert vitamin D into its active form and plays a role in calcium absorption. Foods like nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dark leafy greens are good options to add to your diet to get adequate magnesium intake.
4. Phosphorus: Calcium's Partner in Strength
Phosphorus works in tandem with calcium to build strong bones and teeth. It's found in protein-rich foods like meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and legumes. So if you're eating a variety of these foods, then you're most likely meeting your needs.
5. Protein: Building Blocks for Bones
Protein is not only vital for muscle repair and growth, but also for maintaining bone mass. When you don't get enough protein in, it can lead to decreased bone density. That's why eating protein around training in meals AND snacks is important... and a helpful strategy for meeting your needs! Think: lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, milk (cow's or soy), yoghurt, cheese, legumes, and tofu.
6. Vitamins C and K: Bone-Strengthening Nutrients
Vitamin C is essential for collagen synthesis, which provides the framework for bone mineralization. Citrus fruits, strawberries, bell peppers, and broccoli are excellent sources of vitamin C. Vitamin K, on the other hand, regulates calcium utilization and promotes bone mineralization. Dark leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are rich in vitamin K.
7. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Reducing Inflammation
Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that can help protect bone health by reducing inflammation in the body. Fatty fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts are great sources of omega-3s.
8. Limit Excessive Sodium and Caffeine
High sodium intake (when not exercising and sweating lots) can lead to calcium loss in urine, which may compromise bone health. Similarly, excessive caffeine intake may interfere with calcium absorption. Be mindful of your sodium and caffeine consumption, and opt for moderation.
THINGS THAT CAN IMPACT OUR BONES
Besides eating and limiting certain foods, there are other factors that can impact our bone health. For example:
Low energy availability (not eating enough to fuel the exercise you’re doing, plus all your physiologic needs)
Disordered eating/ eating disorders: key nutrients like the above can be missing/ deficient, energy intake may be too low, excessive overload on bones due to overtraining
Hormone levels: High thyroid levels can cause bone loss. Decreasing oestrogen levels in women, (either amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle), hysterectomy, or peri and post menopause) and low testosterone levels in men can also cause bone loss, increasing the risk of osteoporosis.
Ageing: from 30 years of age, our muscle mass starts to decline by 3-8% per decade, and even more after the age of 60! This is important to reduce and maintain muscle as it (sarcopenia) is a contributing factor to osteoporosis and declining bone mineral density (which also declines with age).
Smoking and alcohol: excessive alcohol and smoking reduces calcium absorption; disrupts hormones; impairs the balance between bone formation and resorption (removal of old bone tissue) which can weaken bones; impairs blood flow; reduces body’s ability to heal after fractures, surgeries and illness; and hinders the production of collagen.
Certain medications: Long-term use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, cortisone, and prednisolone, damages bone. There are other drugs that can also increase the risk of osteoporosis - such as aromatase inhibitors to treat breast cancer, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, methotrexate, some anti-seizure medications, and proton pump inhibitors.
Volpi E, Nazemi R, Fujita S. Muscle tissue changes with aging. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2004 Jul;7(4):405-10. doi: 10.1097/01.mco.0000134362.76653.b2. PMID: 15192443; PMCID: PMC2804956.