Nutrition’s Role in Bone Health

by Jeannie Versagli, RDN, CN

Many of us do not know the health of our bones until we incur a fracture or a bone density scan.  Osteoporosis, a medical condition in which the bones become brittle and fragile from loss of tissue, is often a result of hormonal changes, a deficiency in calcium and or vitamin D.

Bone disease can have a devastating impact on individuals, causing pain, inability to care for one’s self, and decreasing one’s ability to remain active.  Osteoporosis is not a rare disease and currently affects over 10 million Americans, resulting in over 3 million fractures costing between 10 – 22 billion dollars per year in medical expenses.

Nutrition plays a vital role in the prevention of bone disease.  90% of our bone mass is complete at the end of adolescence. Nutrients necessary for the formation of strong healthy bones are Calcium, Vitamin D, Magnesium, and protein.  Consuming a well-balanced diet assures that these nutrients are utilized in the formation of making healthy strong bones.

Calcium is an important mineral in the building of bone tissue.  Vitamin D’s role is to aid in the absorption and processing of calcium in the bone.  Together these two nutrients are the foundation and building blocks for bone development. The Institute of Medicine recommends the following guidelines to reach our necessary calcium intake daily to develop and maintain healthy bones.

The RDA of calcium daily for all individuals is;

0 – 6 months200 mg
6 – 12 months260 mg
1 – 3 years700 mg
4 – 8 years1,000 mg
9 – 18 years1,300 mg
19 – 50 years1,000 mg
Pregnancy1,300 mg
Lactation1,300 mg

Foods containing good sources of calcium are cow’s milk, plant-based milk, yogurts, cheeses, green vegetables, and fortified juices. 1,000 mg of calcium equals 3 servings of dairy foods daily.

Vitamin D is essential to bone health as it promotes the absorption of calcium in the gut and supports the process of bone remodeling.  A lack of Vitamin D results in soft bone tissue showing up as rickets in children and an increase in the occurrence of fractures in adults.

The recommended RDA intake of vitamin D is;

0 – 12 months400 IU
1 – 18 years600 IU
19 – 69 years600 IU
70+ years800 IU

Sources of Vitamin D are fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel.  Other foods that provide vitamin D are cheeses, egg yolks, mushrooms (if exposed to ultraviolet light), milk and milk products, along with fortified juices.  Exposing your body to10 – 30 minutes of sunlight midday several times a week should provide the body with adequate vitamin D.

 Magnesium provides strength and firmness to the bone by converting vitamin D to its active form which enhances the absorption of calcium in our bones.

The recommended RDA intake of magnesium is;

0 – 6 months30 mg
7 – 12 months75 mg
1 – 3 years80 mg
4 – 8 years130 mg
9 – 13 years240 mg
14 – 18 years410 mg males
360 mg females
19 – 30 years400 mg males
310 mg females
31 – 50 years420 mg males
320 mg females
50+ years420 mg males
320 mg females
14 – 18 years
19 – 30 years
31 – 50 years

400 mg
350 mg
360 mg
14 – 18 years
19 – 30 years
31 – 50 years

310 mg
350 mg
320 mg

Food sources rich in magnesium are green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.  Include foods that contain excellent sources of fiber as these foods are rich in magnesium.

Protein makes up approximately 50% of our bones and provides the structural matrix of bone. A daily supply of protein is important to maintain the continuous turnover and remodeling that occurs with the bone. The right amount of protein is important to maintain healthy bones, too little protein or too much protein can negatively affect bone health.  Generally, protein needs for adults range from 0.4 – 0.6 grams protein per pound of body weight. Certain Individuals may require additional protein depending on their strength training program.  Milk and dairy foods provide both the calcium and protein that bones need in the right proportions, making it an excellent food to consume throughout life to build and maintain strong bones.

Knowing the key nutrients that are essential for good bone health is important, but it is necessary too, to consume a nutrient-rich diet daily. Fresh fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of anti-oxidants, polyphenols, carotenoids, and flavonoids and provide the balance of nutrients necessary to promote good bone health. When planning your menu look to a variety of foods that provide a wide range of colors to include blue, red, yellow and green daily.

Recent research suggests that consuming a diet high in Omega 3 fatty acids have helped the formation of new bone and protect against bone loss in older adults. Consider plant sources of omega 3 fats such as chia seeds, flaxseeds, avocados, and walnuts, as well as cold-water fish such as Salmon, Tuna, and mackerel.

Taking in adequate calories also influences bone health. Studies indicate that taking in too little calories under 1,200 a day leads to lower bone density in normal-weight, overweight and obese individuals.

Along with a healthy diet, another factor for maintaining strong healthy bones is weight-bearing exercises.  These exercises put stress on the bones which stimulate bone regrowth called remodeling. Remodeling continues throughout life, most of the adult skeleton is replaced every 10 years.

Consuming a well-balanced diet along with weight-bearing exercises provides the formula for healthy strong bones throughout a lifetime. Research has shown that without good nutrition and exercise individuals are increasingly at risk for developing weak brittle bones which will impact their quality of life over time. We continue to understand and learn how nutrition is the path to wellness.


Hockessin Athletic Club opened its doors on June 10 2007. Boasting over 100,000 sq. ft., a 5-pool aquatics complex, and over 200+ weekly group and aqua fitness classes, it is Delaware's premier fitness destination. 100 Fitness Way, Hockessin, DE ·

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