Bone Basics for National Osteoporosis Awareness and Prevention Month

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How familiar are you with the symptoms or early warning signs of osteoporosis? It’s defined by low bone mineral density (BMD) on a bone-density scan. If a scan shows that bone density is low, the patient receives a diagnosis of osteopenia—or pre-osteoporosis. If a BMD is significantly low, the diagnosis is osteoporosis.

If you have low bone density, you’re facing a higher-than-average risk of breaking a bone.

Hopefully your doctor will recognize some of the early warning signs and send you for a bone density scan before you have to endure the pain and recovery of a break.

The Basics of Bone Health

Bones contain specialized cells that help form bone (osteoblasts) and gradually break down bone (osteoclasts). Osteoclasts and osteoblasts mimic tiny construction crews constantly working to keep the bones healthy and strong. If your overall health is good and you eat well, a balance is maintained. For every bit of bone lost, an equal amount is regenerated. However, with osteoporosis, more bone is lost than formed. Even though breaks can occur anywhere, the most common areas include hips and wrists, which are more likely to suffer the impact of a fall.

Bones of the back (vertebrae) can also be affected, although they don’t break. The weight of the body is enough to compress the backbones, causing a multitude of small fractures in the spongy bone.

Over time, people with osteoporosis can actually become shorter. In other words, they lose a little height each time a vertebra compresses.

In the earlier stages of life, exercise helps build bone, which leads to simple math: bones get stronger when they get more use. And contrary to what some might believe, added weight can actually help build bone.

That’s right – when it comes to osteoporosis, thinner women have a greater risk than their heavier counterparts. Studies reveal that lean muscle mass can help strengthen bone density more than fat, but overall weight still contributes to strong bones. If you have a low body weight, you’ll want to be especially diligent about performing strength-training exercises to build your lean mass and give your bones a better workout.

Nutritional Best Bets

When it comes to osteoporosis prevention or treatment, the two most important nutrients are calcium and vitamin D.

For calcium, your go-tos should include yogurt, milk (and fortified milk alternatives), tofu with calcium (check the nutrition label), soybeans (edamame), white beans, bok choy, kale, collard greens, broccoli, almonds and almond butter.

Vitamin D allows calcium to move from the gastrointestinal tract to parts of the body that need it—including bones. Vitamin D can be made in the body through a reaction of skin to sunlight. Of course, too much sun can potentially lead to skin damage, premature aging, and skin cancer.

Thus, I recommend striking a balance by getting vitamin D from food sources including wild salmon, mackerel (not king), sardines, herring, fortified milk (and milk alternatives), and occasional egg yolks.

Reducing the Risk

Some risk factors are avoidable, while others are not. While you can’t do much to alter your family history or specific medical conditions (such as Cushing disease or hypothyroidism), you can address certain bad habits, including smoking and drinking alcohol to excess as well as be more proactive in regard to nutrition and exercise.

Joy Bauer, MS, RDN, CDN, is the health and nutrition expert for NBC’s TODAY Show and founder of Nourish Snacks. Her latest book is From Junk Food to Joy Food. 

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