Nourish your bones: get vital nutrients through diet, supplements

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Grilled salmon with asparagus. Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium from food and supplements, and salmon is a good source of vitamin D. | THINKSTOCKIMAGES.COM

Unlike the static human skeletons that commonly hang in biology classrooms, your bones are continually being broken down and rebuilt. In fact, your entire skeleton is replaced about every 10 years. In addition to exercise, about 20 different nutrients help prevent the weakening of bones that leads to osteoporosis. We review nutrients you’re more than likely falling short on and where to get them.

Calcium — Requirement for adults: 1,000-1,300 mg (milligrams)

Calcium has the strongest research evidence of any nutrient for its role in supporting healthy bones, according to a 2016 position paper from the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

Sources: Dairy foods, fortified foods (such as orange juice, tofu and soy milk), fish with edible bones (sardines, canned salmon), bok choy and kale.


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Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps you absorb calcium from food and supplements. Without vitamin D, less than 10 percent of the calcium you consume is absorbed.

Requirement for adults: 600-800 International Units. However, a 2014 analysis by Canadian experts and a March 2015 analysis by U.S. experts, both published in Nutrients, report that the Institute of Medicine made a significant statistical error in calculating vitamin D needs, making current recommendations too low. Ask your doctor to test your vitamin D blood level; it should be at least 32 ng/mL to support bone health.

Sources: Fortified dairy foods, egg yolks, salmon and tuna. To assess how much vitamin D you’re getting from sun exposure daily, use the dminder smartphone app (, which vitamin D expert Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D. helped develop.

Magnesium —Requirement for adults: 310-420 mg

Magnesium is a component of bone, giving it resiliency and protection against fractures; it also is essential for converting vitamin D to its active form in the body. If you take a calcium and vitamin D supplement, take magnesium, too, because high calcium intake causes magnesium loss, and most Americans don’t consume enough magnesium.

Sources: Nuts, seeds, leafy green vegetables, whole grains and legumes.

Vitamin K— Requirement for adults: 75-120 mcg (micrograms)

Vitamin K is found in two main forms in food, K1 and K2, and your body may convert limited amounts of vitamin K1 to K2. Both forms play a role in blood clotting (and work against the anti-clot drug warfarin), but vitamin K2 also helps prevent calcium from depositing in arteries (the process of atherosclerosis) and instead directs calcium to bones and helps bind the mineral to your skeleton.

Sources: K1 is found in dark, leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach; K2 is in natto (fermented soybeans), cheese, grass-fed meat and liver.

Vitamin B12 & Folate — Requirement for adults: For folate, 400-600 mcg. For B12, 2.4 -2.8 mcg. (Your doctor may advise higher amounts if you have elevated homocysteine.)

Vitamin B12 and folate support bone health by helping to keep levels of homocysteine, a compound that stimulates the breakdown of bone, low. This role is further confirmed by genetic studies that reveal a link between an increased risk of osteoporosis in older adults and a common gene mutation (MTHFR C677T) that can lead to high homocysteine levels.

Sources: B12 is in meat, fish and other animal foods, as well as in fortified foods, including cereals and nutritional yeast. Folate is in leafy green vegetables, broccoli, asparagus and legumes.

Marsha McCulloch, M.S., R.D. /Environmental Nutrition Newsletter

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