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How to Feed Your Bones

Your bones are constantly changing due to a process called remodeling. To build strong, healthy bones when you are young — and to keep them strong and healthy as you get older — you need to feed them well. This is especially true when you’re training for rigorous physical activity! The additional physical activity stimulates remodeling, and your bones need proper nutrition to support that process.

Let’s talk about the role of nutrients in bone health and what you can do to make sure you’re giving your bones the nutrients they need to help you perform your best.

What We Know

Vitamins and minerals: Many nutrients play a role in bone health. Calcium, vitamin D and magnesium are the key bone health nutrients that require special attention to ensure you meet your daily requirement.

Although many foods contain calcium, dairy products provide the most calcium per serving size. Calcium that has been added (fortified) to drinks may settle to the bottom, so shake the container well before drinking. Daily requirements for calcium change with age. People who do not eat dairy foods will need to work hard to meet the recommended daily allowance or may need a calcium supplement.

The easiest way to get vitamin D is through exposure to sunlight — but we don’t recommend trying to go that route because of the risk of skin cancer. Find foods with vitamin D, and talk to your doctor about adding a supplement — it’s pretty inexpensive.

Magnesium is found in many foods such as green vegetables, seeds and nuts, legumes, whole grains and avocados. People who consume even moderate amounts of alcohol (moderate drinking is defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men) or use proton pump inhibitors may have increased loss of magnesium in the urine and may benefit from a supplement (approximately 200–250 mg/day).

Protein: We often hear about “carbo loading” when it comes to distance sports; however, getting enough protein is critical for recovery from training. Protein eaten in small amounts (20–30 g) throughout the day (every 3-5 hours) stimulates muscle growth and repair[1]. A 3-ounce piece of meat (about the size of a deck of playing cards) has about 21 grams of protein.

The USDA recommends 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, but current recommendations suggest that protein needs depend on age, body weight and activity level. Athletes are likely to require more protein to support daily training needs; however, precise recommendations have not yet been defined. Current recommendations suggest that athletes regularly training should consume about 0.7-1 grams of protein per pound of body weight in small doses throughout the day. So think about string cheese as a snack.

Protein in lean meats and other animal products, like eggs, milk, whey, and casein (proteins found in milk), is of a much higher quality than proteins from plants. Although plants have many health benefits, animal products contain all essential amino acids and thus are considered complete proteins. Four ounces of chicken breast, for example, has about 32 grams of protein. Vegetable options alone do not provide high-quality proteins. For example, a half-cup of black beans has about eight grams of protein. However, pairing the half-cup of black beans with brown rice or a whole wheat pita provides about 11 g of complete protein.

Recovery from exercise benefits from refueling within 30 to 120 minutes after rigorous activity. The current recommended amount of post-exercise protein is between 20 and 30 grams[2].

Nutrient*

Bone Health Function

Food Sources

Calcium[3]

If you do not get enough calcium through your food or supplements, your body will take the calcium it needs from your bones.

Dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt); fortified foods (juices, cereals, almond and soy milk); sardines or canned salmon with bones; tofu; dark green vegetables (collards, kale, broccoli, bok choy, okra); seeds (poppy, sesame, chia); almonds

Vitamin D[4]

Necessary for calcium to be absorbed in the intestine.

Fatty fish (swordfish, salmon, sardines mackerel); fortified foods (dairy, cereal); egg yolks

Magnesium[5]

Allows for proper calcium and vitamin D regulation.

Green vegetables (collards, kale, bok choy, okra); seeds (poppy, sesame, chia); nuts; legumes; whole grains; avocado

Protein

Important for muscle growth and repair

20–30 g equivalent to: 3 oz. skinless chicken breast, 3 oz. serving of salmon, canned tuna, trout, sardines, ½ cup of soybeans or soy nuts, a cup of cottage cheese, yogurt, milk cheese, beans & lentils

What You Can Do

Now that you’ve learned what nutrients you need for your body, it’s time to eat!

Here’s a sample diet of a day when you are training for a distance event:

Breakfast

Calcium

Vitamin D

Magnesium

Protein

¾ cup of oatmeal

140 mg

0 IU

45 mg

6 gm

2 scrambled eggs

50 mg

88 IU

5 mg

12 gm

6 ounces calcium-fortified orange juice

375 mg

0 IU

6 mg

0 gm

1 cup of coffee with skim milk

35 mg

17 IU

5 mg

25 gm

Subtotal

600 mg

105 IU

61 mg

43 gm

 

Snack

Calcium

Vitamin D

Magnesium

Protein

Banana with peanut butter

6 mg

0 IU

81 mg

8 gm

Pre training sports drink*

0 mg

0 IU

2 mg

4 gm

Post training sports drink*

0 mg

0 IU

2 mg

4 gm

Subtotal

6 mg

0 IU

85 mg

16 gm

*Be aware of sugar content in sports drinks. If you don’t need the extra magnesium and protein, opt for water.

Subtotal

204 mg

40 IU

86 mg

47 gm

1 hour after
training

Calcium

Vitamin D

Magnesium

Protein

2 slices whole-wheat bread

60 mg

0 IU

46 mg

7 gm

4 oz turkey

24 mg

0 IU

31 mg

33 gm

1 slice fortified cheese

202 mg

40 IU

8 mg

7 gm

Lettuce, tomato

2 mg

0 IU

1 mg

0 gm

 

Dinner

Calcium

Vitamin D

Magnesium

Protein

Mixed green salad

25 mg

0 IU

47 mg

1 gm

4 oz grilled salmon

0 mg

500 IU

0 mg

25 gm

Steamed broccoli

70 mg

0 IU

50 mg

3 gm

Baked sweet potato with cheese

243 mg

0 IU

31 mg

2 gm

 Subtotal

338 mg

500 IU

128 mg

31 gm

 

TOTAL

1,148 mg

645 IU

360 mg

137 gm

Target

1,000–1,200

600–800

200–250

46

How You Can Be Sure

Remember it’s better to get nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D from food instead of supplements. However, for those people who don’t normally get enough from their food, a supplement might be appropriate.

It’s important to talk to your doctor about taking supplements and to take them only as directed. Taking too much calcium from supplements can cause problems. 

Read more about other vitamins and minerals that are important for bone health. Again, a healthy person eating a balanced diet typically will get most of what they need from food. Pay attention to nutritional labels to make the best choices for a healthy diet.


[1] Tanner Stokes, Amy Hector, Robert Morton, Chris McGlory, & Stuart Phillips. (2018). Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients, 10(2), 180. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020180

[2] American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance.Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Mar;48(3):543-68.

[3] Committee to Review Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin D and Calcium, Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2010.

[4] Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Calcium and Vitamin D. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2010.

[5] Rude RK. Magnesium. In: Ross AC, Caballero B, Cousins RJ, Tucker KL, Ziegler TR, eds. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease. 11th ed. Baltimore, Mass: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2012:159-75

 

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