When you're active and enjoying life, chances are you don't think much about your bones. But it's never too early to give them some attention. The foods you eat now lay the groundwork for strong bones throughout your life. Bones continuously replace the minerals that keep them healthy and strong. If you give them a regular daily supply of the nutrients they need, you can help prevent osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
Calcium and Phosphorus
Calcium is known as the bone-building mineral, but it doesn't work alone. Your bones also contain a significant amount of phosphorus. About 65 percent of your total bone mass is made from a substance called hydroxyapatite, which is a mixture of calcium and phosphorus. Hydroxyapatite provides strength, but if your bones were made from nothing but hard minerals, they would lack resilience and break easily. To solve that problem, the minerals bind with collagen, which is a strong connective tissue made from protein. Thirty-five percent of your bone mass consists of collagen, adding flexibility that helps bones absorb impact without breaking.
A little more than half of your body’s magnesium is located in your bones, although it only represents about 1 percent of the bones' total mineral content. It helps regulate the size of the hydroxyapatite crystals as they harden into bone. If you don’t have enough magnesium, the crystals are larger than normal, which makes the bones brittle. Magnesium in your bloodstream impacts hormones that regulate the amount of calcium absorbed into your system. Lack of magnesium causes levels of calcium to go down, so less is available for building bones.
Everyday wear-and-tear gradually damages bones. To keep them strong, your body constantly removes old bone and replaces it with new. This remodeling process is slow -- most of your bone is totally replaced every 10 years -- but after age 30, bone tends to lose minerals faster than they’re replaced. Bones also serve as storage containers for calcium, phosphorus and magnesium, which is important because they have other vital jobs to fill. For example, calcium and magnesium control heart muscles, calcium is essential for nerves to work properly and phosphorus keeps acid-base levels normal. If the level of minerals available in your blood drops too low, your body takes them out of your bones.
You probably don’t need to worry about phosphorus because it’s abundantly available in different foods and few people have a deficiency. However, many women do not get enough calcium and magnesium. The best way to get your RDA of calcium -- 1,000 milligrams daily -- is through eating fat-free dairy products, fortified foods, beans, spinach and other leafy greens. Green leafy vegetables are also good sources of magnesium, as well as grains and nuts. Women need 320 milligrams of magnesium daily, except if they become pregnant, and then the RDA is 360 milligrams. Two vitamins are also critical for your bones. Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and vitamin K because it helps regulate mineralization.
- National Osteoporosis Foundation: NOF Releases New Data Detailing the Prevalence of Osteoporosis
- Linus Pauling Institute: Micronutrients and Bone Health
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: Basics of Bone in Health and Disease
- Linus Pauling Institute: Magnesium
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: Healthy Bones Matter
- Linus Pauling Institute: Phosphorus
- Office of Dietary Supplements: Calcium
Sandi Busch received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, then pursued training in nursing and nutrition. She taught families to plan and prepare special diets, worked as a therapeutic support specialist, and now writes about her favorite topics – nutrition, food, families and parenting – for hospitals and trade magazines.