Bone health or the lack of it, is one of the concerns we face as we get older. Bone fractures are a common occurrence among older people. Osteoporosis, the loss of bone mass, or osteopenia, the thinning of bone mass are usually the culprits.

Osteoporosis is more common in women than in men. Even though calcium is a factor in bone health, simply increasing calcium won’t prevent osteoporosis. Calcium losses must also be reduced.

According to the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) risk factors for bone loss include genetics, lifestyle, intake of animal protein and salt, smoking, lack of sun, inactivity and perhaps caffeine.

  • The Harvard Nurse’s Health Study showed participants who drank three or more glasses of milk a day had no reduction in arm or hip fractures; some even had slightly higher rates.
  • Animal protein has to two to five times more sulfur containing amino acids than plant foods.
    • These amino acids acidify the blood.  Calcium is leached from the bones to buffer the blood and is then excreted in the urine.
  • A 1994 study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found when animal proteins were eliminated; calcium losses were cut in half.
    • Countries with the highest calcium intake from dairy experience more fractures and have higher rates of osteoporosis. This is probably due to the intake of animal protein that goes along with the consumption of dairy.
  • Salt should be minimized as it encourages the excretion of calcium through the kidneys.
    • If kept to one to two grams a day, calcium requirements can be cut on average by 160 mg. a day.
  • Smoking increases calcium loss.
  • Vitamin D facilitates absorption and retention of calcium.
    • Vitamin D can be obtained by a few minutes in the sun each day. When a supplement is necessary 600 IU a day is adequate.
  • Simple weight bearing exercises help keep calcium in the bone.
  • Coffee is a diuretic. Two or more cups a day encourages water and calcium loss.

Plant-based sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables and legumes. The absorption of calcium from greens is equal to or better than the absorption from dairy.  Dairy products have a 32% bioavailability while certain greens, broccoli, brussel sprouts and kale have a bioavailability of 40-64%.

The onset of menopause also speeds up bone loss due to the drop in estrogens and/or progesterone. Natural progesterone may be safer than hormone replacement therapy. Hormone replacement therapy increased the risk of breast cancer 30-80% in the Harvard Nurse’s Health Study participants.

Men’s risk factors include the use of steroids and alcohol in addition to low testosterone levels. Approximately forty percent of men over the age of 70 have low testosterone levels.

Lifestyle and what we eat largely dictates the state of our future health. Minimizing or eliminating animal protein, cutting back on salt, quitting smoking, getting moderate amounts of sunshine, engaging in the right kinds of exercises, drinking little or no coffee, keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum and increasing plant-based sources of calcium will help minimize bone loss and possible future fractures.