Bad to the Bones

Featured Article, Healthy Aging, Healthy Living, Osteoporosis, Women's Health
on September 27, 2011

The news about bone health has been dominated lately by the debate over Vitamin D—whether Americans are getting enough of this nutrient that helps our bones absorb calcium. But while you should be aware of whether you’re deficient, you should also know that some habits that many of us engage in daily can also endanger your bones. Some of the riskiest bone behaviors are bad for your health in general, like smoking and binge drinking. But here are some other surprising bone-busters.

Drinking cola. Doctors used to believe soda drinkers tended to have a higher risk of osteoporosis simply because they chose soft drinks over calcium-rich choices like milk or fortified juice. But a Tufts University study found that cola drinkers showed more bone loss even when researchers controlled for calcium in their diets. “What it looks like now is that colas have a significant amount of phosphoric acid,” says Dr. David Ott, an orthopedic surgeon and president of Arizona Orthopedic Associates. “The body has to neutralize that, and to do it, it depletes calcium from the bones.” Non-colas like Sprite or ginger ale don’t seem to have a detrimental effect, so if you’re craving a bubbly beverage, opt for them instead.

Slouching. “We spend a good portion of our day rounding over our computer or steering wheel in a slumped posture,” says Kathleen Cody, executive director of American Bone Health and the Foundation for Osteoporosis Research and Education. “Your head weighs about 14 pounds, and gravity keeps pulling you forward. So we need to protect those bones in our spine.”Yoga and Pilates can teach you proper alignment, and help you try to maintain it throughout your day. Strengthening your core muscles will also keep you from putting unnecessary pressure on your spine.

Avoiding dairy. Little frustrates orthopedists more than the fact that dairy is sometimes demonized in the name of health. Dieters often forego milk, cheese and yogurt because of the fat content, but it’s a vital part of good nutrition. “They’re really eliminating the best source of calcium,” Ott says. “The fat and protein in dairy products helps your body absorb it.” Interestingly, lower-fat and nonfat milks often contain slightly more calcium per volume because milk fat takes up extra space. Don’t make the mistake of thinking a calcium supplement is a perfect substitute for natural sources of dairy. Unless you’re vegan or can’t eat dairy because of an allergy or intolerance, it’s in the best interest for your bones to make a place for lowfat milk products in your diet.

Birth control. Because most oral contraceptives contain estrogen, there is some evidence they offer a small amount of bone protection, as estrogen helps control bone loss. But progesterone-only contraceptives—the most common of which is the Depo Provera shot—have been found to cause bone loss, in some cases rapid and irreversible. If you have other risk factors, like a strong family history of osteoporosis, you may want to opt for an estrogen-based birth control method.

Choosing low-impact exercise. It sounds counter-intuitive, but putting weight on your bones and joints actually strengthens them. Opting primarily for low-impact activities may get your heart rate up, but won’t do anything for your bones. “Cycling and swimming don’t have enough impact to stimulate bone turnover, even if you do it long-distance,” Cody says. “You need to add that extra component of weight-bearing exercise.” This is one reason why it’s important to start exercising sooner rather than later, so that you’re conditioning your bones and joints for impact before they begin to deteriorate naturally. “In my specialty of orthopedics, I’m mostly fixing adults who wear their body parts out,” Ott says. “Many are people who hit 40, 50 or 60 and say, ‘I’m going to get in shape now.’ You need to start when you’re younger.”