Since researchers first described osteoporosis in the early 1940s, much has been learned about bone loss and how to prevent it. Osteoporosis is a disease that results from bone loss, or the loss of bone density and tissue. It is normal to lose some bone density as you age, but some people are at risk of losing a greater amount than others and developing osteoporosis. Fortunately, you can help lower your risk of bone loss by eating a diet rich in the nutrients that keep your bones healthy and strong.

Preventing Osteoporosis Through Diet: Calcium

Calcium is essential for healthy bones. The body uses and loses calcium every day. If more calcium is lost than is replaced, bone loss occurs.

Because the body does not make calcium, you must get calcium from the foods you eat. The amount of calcium needed in your diet every day is 1,200 milligrams for adults over 50 years old; 1,000 mg for adults ages 19 to 50; and 1,300 mg for children ages 9 to 18. However, in the United States, most people get only half the recommended amount, or about one and a half dairy servings per day, according to Janet Tietyen, PhD, RD, associate extension professor at the University of Kentucky’s School of Human Environmental Sciences. Additionally, says Tietyen, “Women age 20 and over average only slightly more than one serving of dairy foods per day.”

“Dairy foods are rich sources of calcium,” says Tietyen. “Milk, yogurt, cheese, and frozen desserts are popular sources of calcium with 300 mg or more in a one-cup or one-ounce serving. Dairy foods with lower fat and water content are more concentrated sources of calcium.” Dairy foods also provide another nutrient, phosphorus, needed to work with calcium.

“Some vegetables, like leafy greens, contain 150 to 270 mg of calcium a serving,” Tietyen adds. Other sources of calcium include:

  • Sardines and salmon with bones
  • Tofu (the amount varies, so read the label before you buy)
  • Almonds
  • Calcium-fortified foods such as orange juice and cereals

If you can’t eat dairy foods because of lactose intolerance, Tietyen recommends trying different dairy products to see if some give you less trouble than others. For instance, yogurt might not bother you the way milk does. If you find that you can’t get enough calcium from the foods you eat, a daily supplement may help you get your minimum.

Preventing Osteoporosis Through Diet: Protein

“Protein is the next most important nutrient for bone health,” says Tietyen. Good sources of protein are:

  • Meats, poultry, and fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Dairy products
  • Dry beans and peas
  • Eggs

Because both low- and high-protein diets can affect your body’s ability to best use calcium, eating protein in moderation is your best bet. The protein requirement for women age 19 and over is 46 grams per day; it’s 56 grams per day for men of the same age.

Preventing Osteoporosis Through Diet: Other Nutrients for Strong Bones

Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption and consequently to prevent bone loss. The daily recommendations for vitamin D are 400 to 800 International Units (IU) for adults under age 50, and 800 to 1,000 IU daily for adults age 50 and older. People may be able to meet their vitamin D needs by getting at least 15 minutes a day of sun exposure. If you’re housebound or live in a colder climate, you may benefit from taking daily vitamin D supplements of 400 to 600 IU. If you drink milk for the calcium, you may also be getting vitamin D because it’s usually added to milk; other food sources are egg yolks, saltwater fish, and liver.

Magnesium, zinc, copper, iron, fluoride, and vitamins A and C are also required to prevent bone loss. Eating a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meats, beans, nuts, and seeds helps ensure that you’re getting what you need.

Preventing Osteoporosis Through Diet: The Food vs. Supplement Debate

Getting at least the minimum recommended amount of needed nutrients every day is most important in maintaining healthy bones and preventing bone loss and osteoporosis. Tietyen advises that you try to get your nutrients from food rather than relying on multi-vitamins. “If three or four servings of dairy foods just do not fit into your daily diet, a multi-vitamin will provide about 400 IUs of vitamin D,” says Tietyen. She also recommends taking a separate calcium supplement because calcium can interact with other nutrients.

Get to know the nutrients necessary in preventing bone loss, and make sure your diet is serving up sufficient portions of vital bone-building foods.