Most of people have gotten the message that calcium helps build bones. And it’s true: About 70 percent of bone is made up of calcium phosphate crystals, easily gotten from milk. But while dairy products are important in shoring up bones, other superfoods can do the job, too. Here’s a rundown:
Canned salmon and sardines: Canned fatty fish like sockeye salmon and sardines provide omega-3 fatty acids, which reduce inflammation and help to prevent bone breakdown. Plus, the tiny, soft fish bones in these products are good sources of calcium and other minerals. Three ounces of canned sockeye salmon has 188 mg of calcium and 676 IU of vitamin D, which helps your body process and use calcium. It also packs 20 grams of protein, essential for bone growth, maintenance and renewal, especially after an injury. Plan on three to four 3-ounce servings a week.
Kale: Dark, leafy greens like kale, chard, even parsley, are loaded with Vitamin K, critical for the formation of the underlying structure on which minerals are deposited. Vitamin K activates osteocalcin, a protein that binds calcium into bones. Research links vitamin K deficiency with up to 30 percent increased risk for hip fracture. Just one half-cup of cooked greens provides 530 micrograms of vitamin K, several times the Recommended Daily Allowance of 90 micrograms. Aim for three to four servings a week. Note: Vitamin K is notincluded in most multi-vitamins.
Prunes: New research shows that prunes not only help to prevent bone loss, they can repair bone density in postmenopausal women. In one study, women who ate prunes daily for six months had at least 6 percent increase in hip bone, an indicator of strong bones. Plant compounds called polyphenols in prunes pump up biochemicals that stimulate bone formation and inhibit bone breakdown. Three to nine prunes a day should do it. (Most fresh plums don’t have the same types of polyphenols as the plums used to make prunes.)
Sesame seeds: Sesame seeds and sesame paste (also known as tahini, used in Middle Eastern cooking) are loaded with trace minerals such as magnesium, copper, boron, zinc and manganese. Studies consistently show that adding trace minerals to a calcium-rich diet improves bone mineral density more than calcium alone. In fact, magnesium may play as important a role as calcium: It acts as the “glue” that binds calcium to bone’s protein matrix, creating strong, dense bones. Other trace minerals allow cross-linkages that help keep bones strong and flexible. Most people don’t get enough trace minerals unless they are eating mostly unprocessed foods, such as nuts, seeds and whole grains. About one tablespoon of sesame seeds—unhulled, preferably—or tahini a day will give you the benefits you need. (Pumpkin and sunflower seeds, and most nuts, are also good sources of trace minerals.) Sprinkle seeds on salads or vegetables, or add to baked goods; use tahini in sauces and salads dressings, or like peanut butter.
Green tea: Drinking green tea five or more times a week increases bone mineral density and helps prevent osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. Researchers think that compounds in the tea stimulate bone-building osteoblast cells and inhibit bone-breaking osteoclasts. To get the most flavonoids from tea, pick an organic, high-quality, loose-leaf tea and brew it yourself. Allow water to cool for a few seconds after boiling. Steep for two to five minutes to increase polyphenol content.
Edamame: If you’re in early menopause, eating soy foods every day can help maintain strong bones, research shows. Soy foods contain phytoestrogens, which act like weak estrogens and slow bone mineral loss. That’s especially important during early menopause, when bone mineral loss is highest from plummeting estrogen levels. Eat a serving or two a day of edamame, tofu, or calcium and vitamin D fortified soy milk. (Isolated soy protein and soy supplements don’t seem to have the same bone-protecting effects as whole soy foods.)