“Drink a glass of milk for healthy bones,” they said. “Take a calcium supplement each day,” we heard.
Well, it turns out a glass of milk isn’t actually the best advice, and a daily calcium tablet is a good idea, but it’s not enough. The real solution is in the gut.
Amy Beard, MD, an ER-trained dietician and certified functional medicine practitioner at AmyBeardMD.com, is emphatic about the bigger issue behind bone deterioration. While calcium is certainly important, there’s much more to bone health. According to Beard, “Heathy bones are the result of a balanced immune system, balanced GI microbiome and optimal gut health.” Getting the right amount of calcium is a part of that, but so is keeping up an optimal count of vitamin D and other mineral levels.
“Anything that negatively impacts gut health and the GI microbiome (your immune system) is going to also have negative effects on your bone health,” Beard explains.
Osteoporosis, for instance, isn’t just the result of a calcium deficiency. This bone-deteriorating disease is more often the result of immune dysregulation and inflammation, which — you guessed it — starts in the gut. Basic supplementation for bone health is recommended, but Beard warns it should never take the place of real food. You should eat high-quality foods instead of processed ones. Avoid foods that are high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and stay away from products that contain food dyes. Good choices include organic, non-GMO fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, cage-free chickens and wild-caught fish. You can also indulge in some high-quality fats such as grass-fed butter, organic coconut oil, high-quality olive oils, nuts and seeds.
“Fat should not be feared,” Beard says. “We need fat.”
The Truth about Calcium
Calcium is not to be ignored. Beard recommends taking a multivitamin coupled with a diet that contains quality sources of calcium. Most multivitamins will do the trick with sufficient amounts of calcium, plus other important minerals (zinc, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, copper and boron) that are essential for bone health. For added benefit, you can also take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement and probiotic. Omega-3 helps balance the immune system while probiotics help improve overall gut health. Vitamin D supplementation is also important, especially when sunshine is limited during the winter months.
“I seldom recommend calcium supplementation outside of what is in a multivitamin,” Beard says. “And, drinking milk certainly isn’t the answer — just a great marketing campaign. Milk can be problematic for many people, and thus, can contribute to poor gut health and systemic inflammation. We really aren’t supposed to be drinking glasses of milk.”
The nutritional advantages of milk can be had in cheese and yogurt, but even those can be problematic for some.
Don’t Forget Your Fruits
Fruits also have a powerful connection to bone health. According to a published paper by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, fruits contain important bone-forming minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and zinc that are needed to maintain bone density. Vitamins A, C, E and K, found in many fruits, are highly important as well. Vitamin A, for example, aids in bone growth and development, while vitamin C supports proper bone formation. The antioxidant properties in vitamin E have bone-protective effects, and vitamin K works synergistically with vitamin D to improve bone metabolism.
Fiber and phytochemicals play an important role, too. Dietary fiber found in fruits slow down your digestion and increase your absorption of nutrients, especially magnesium and calcium which benefit bones. Look to raspberries which have the highest fiber content at 8 grams per cup. Other great options are apples (with the peel), bananas, oranges and strawberries. Each contains approximately 3 to 4 grams of fiber per serving. The brightest-colored fruits have higher amounts of potent antioxidants (phytochemicals). These include plums, blueberries and blackberries; their antioxidant properties have been shown to prevent bone loss.
To get the best effect, eat a variety of fruits to give your body access to a wide range of nutrients. Choose fresh fruit over fruit juice. Most fiber is contained in the skin or the pulp of the fruit, which gets lost in juice. Plus, most juices contain added sugars. Frozen or canned fruits can be good options as long as you opt for those in their own juice instead of syrups, and watch out for dried fruits. Many have great nutrients that are needed for maintaining healthy bones, but the dehydration process makes them more calorie-dense, so pay attention to the serving size.
Where to Start
“First and foremost, gut health needs to be the focus,” Beard emphasizes. While many think of gut health as purely foods we eat, a number of factors go into it: diet, physical activity, stress, sleep quality, toxin exposures and sun exposure. However, a balanced diet is where you can make the biggest impact on bone health. This includes eliminating foods you might be sensitive to and are causing inflammation. Common problematic foods include gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, nuts and legumes. If you’re not sure if you have a food sensitivity, the best course of action is to eliminate all possible problematic foods and reintroduce them one at a time.
To start off on the right track with kids, Beard recommends a quality daily multivitamin, omega-3 fatty acid supplement and a probiotic. Unfortunately, the majority of children aren’t getting these important nutrients on their own. Many are picky eaters, or they’re eating processed food, convenient food and fast food that don’t contain the best nutrients. Most kids are generally healthier when they supplement regularly.