Can Osteoporosis Be Slowed Through Diet?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Can osteoporosis be slowed through diet?

Expert Answer

Beth Reardon, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is Caring.com senior food and nutrition editor and the director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine. As a practitioner of integrative nutrition, Reardon takes a holistic approach to wellness, recognizing that the foundation for optimal health and healing begins with a health-promoting diet. As a practitioner of integrative nutrition, Reardon takes a holistic approach to wellness, recognizing that the foundation for optimal health and healing begins with a health-promoting diet.

Yes, it can: You can't turn back the clock on bone density already lost, but it's possible to slow further losses and strengthen remaining bone. A healthy, plant-based diet is critical.

Focus on consuming more:

  • Healthy calcium. Choose low-fat milk, low-fat cheese, low-fat yogurt, sardines, salmon, green leafy vegetables (like spinach and broccoli). Aim for 1,200 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium from all sources per day.

  • Vitamin D. We know that having adequate vitamin D is important for bone health , but did you know that it helps maintain muscle strength as well? Good muscle tone is important to help avoid falls as we age. Check vitamin D levels annually (the doctor will order a simple blood test). In the meantime, look for supplements containing D3 (cholecalciferol); 1,000 to 2,000 IU's (international units) of D3 per day is the maximum recommended in supplement form, unless you're advised otherwise. Also check the label to be sure the vitamin has been extracted from sardines, herring, or other fish sources.

  • Protein. This can be a challenge for older adults who don't cook for themselves. Ideally, protein should be lean (lean beef or poultry), fish (preferably cold-water varieties, such as wild salmon, herring, mackerel, and sardines), or soy-based (edamame, roasted soy nuts, soy nut butter, tofu, tempeh). Try substituting at least one or two meat meals per week with soy-based meals, or have at least one serving per day of edamame or roasted soy nuts as a snack.

  • Whole soy. Edamame, tofu, and other whole-soy sources contain an isoflavone compound that seems to have a bone-protective effect.

  • Green tea. Like soy, it contains compounds that inhibit osteoclasts (bone cells that cause bone to dissolve and be reabsorbed). Start by replacing a cup of coffee or black tea each day with a green or white tea variety; work up to two to four cups per day of green or white tea. (White tea has similar nutritional properties to green.)

Focus on consuming less:

  • Alcohol. When you do drink alcohol, choose wine. Keep in mind that one glass of wine per day for women and two glasses per day for men is the recommended upper limit. Red wine is a good source of resveratrol -- a powerful plant compound with many health benefits.

  • Animal protein. Try experimenting throughout the week with more plant proteins in place of animal protein, or try to reduce how much animal protein you eat in a given meal. Limit portion size of meats to four to six ounces.

  • Nicotine (smoking). There's a direct relationship between tobacco use and reduced bone density. Cigarette smoking exposes the entire body, including blood vessels, tissue, and bones to the damaging effects of nicotine and toxins. When blood vessels are damaged due to smoking, they're not able to supply the nutrients, including oxygen, necessary for bone health. As a result, smokers aren't only at increased risk for osteoporosis and fractures, but when fractures do occur, they heal less well due to the impaired blood flow. Adding insult to injury, smoking triggers an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, which leads to bone loss through its inhibiting effects on calcitonin, the hormone responsible for bone building.