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How to reduce the risk of osteoporosis

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Discover four ways in which your diet could reduce the risk of osteoporosis, what bad habits decrease bone density, and how exercise can improve bone health.

In the UK alone, there are currently over 500,000 fragility fractures registered each year attributed to osteoporosis.1 Genetics can affect your bone strength, however there are many simple lifestyle adjustments you can make to help reduce your risk of developing this brittle-bone condition. 

In this article we'll look at what causes osteoporosis, who is most at risk of developing it, and the different preventative steps you can take now (including improving your diet, exercising, and quitting smoking) to avoid experiencing osteoporosis later in life.  

Skip to: What is osteoporosis? | 4 ways your diet could help | How exercise can improve bone health | Could quitting alcohol and smoking reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis?

What is osteoporosis?

Quite literally meaning “porous bone”, osteoporosis is a condition characterised by low bone density and the loss of tissue over time making your bones more fragile and prone to injury.2 It is estimated that 3 million people in the UK currently have osteoporosis, the majority of which are women.3 Research suggests that women are four times more at risk of developing the condition than men primarily due to hormonal changes that occur (ovaries stop producing oestrogen) during the menopause.

Unfortunately, osteoporosis generally remains undiagnosed until you break a bone in a relatively minor accident or fall (commonly known as a fragility fracture). 

4 ways your diet could reduce the risk of osteoporosis

Eating well is incredibly important to maintaining good health and helping to reduce your risk of developing several chronic health conditions including heart disease, diabetes and even osteoporosis.5,6,7 Here are some of our top recommendations of ways you can adjust your diet to help protect your bones: 

Up your calcium intake

Up your calcium intake

Calcium is the best-known nutrient for bones. The recommended daily intake for women is 800mg, or 1200mg if you’re at risk of osteoporosis.8 If you think you might be lacking in calcium, try to include more of these calcium-rich food sources: 

  • Dairy products such as milk, yoghurt, and cheese,  
  • Pulses like lentils and beans  
  • Leafy green veg, including kale, cabbage, and bok choy, are packed full of calcium
  • Dried fruit – apricots, figs, dates, and prunes are great choices 
  • Some brands of tofu can also be high in calcium

If you struggle to get enough calcium through your diet alone and feel the need to take a calcium supplement, choose one with calcium citrate, rather than calcium carbonate, for maximum absorption. 

Handpicked content: What is calcium?

 

Increase your vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a vital role in helping your body to absorb calcium, so it is really important for bone health. The NHS recommends that all children above the age of one and adults should consume at least 10mg vitamin D each day.  

While it is true that your body can produce its own vit D through sun exposure, the UK government recently released information that revealed around 1 in 6 adults have vitamin D levels lower than recommended, and that most of us are deficient from October to March due to low levels of sunlight.9,10 That’s why we recommend looking to include foods rich in vitamin D into your diet (if you don’t already).  

Some tasty options include: 

  • Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring 
  • Egg yolks 

Unfortunately, as you can see, many of the foods with naturally high levels of vitamin D are not vegan-friendly, but luckily you do have options if you follow a plant-based diet! We recommend opting for fortified foods, or ‘foods with benefits’ as we like to call them; cereals, spreads and plant-based milks with essential vitamins added. You could also consider taking a daily vitamin D supplement if you are not getting your recommended daily requirement.  

Handpicked content: How to identify and treat vitamin D deficiency

Start drinking non-fermented teas 

Emerging research from Korea and Taiwan has revealed that there may be a positive link between certain teas and bone health, due to the antioxidant effects of the flavonoids, catechins and polyphenols found in non-fermented tea.11,12 While this research is still very new, it does seem to suggest that habitual tea drinkers have a lower likelihood of developing osteoporosis, and significantly higher bone mineral density (BMD) than non-consumers. With many different options available, it can be hard to choose but here are some of our favourite non-fermented teas: 

  • Green Tea 
  • Yerba Mate 
  • Jasmine Tea 

 

Choose foods that are rich in vitamin C 

While the importance of calcium and vit D on bone health is well-documented, there's emerging research that suggests vitamin C could also be incredibly important for your bones and reducing the risk of osteoporosis.13,14 Aside from the obvious citrus fruits like oranges and lemons, start to incorporate more vitamin C into your diet with: 

  • Bell & chilli peppers 
  • Strawberries & blackcurrants 
  • Rosehips 

Handpicked content: What does vitamin C do?

How exercise can improve bone health

How exercise can improve bone health

Although it may not seem like it, your bones are made of living tissue, constantly renewing, and growing stronger as you use them. That’s one of the reasons why it's important that you keep physically active as you get older – maintaining and building bone strength will make them less likely to break. A combination of weight-bearing exercise and muscle-strengthening exercise is most effective for keeping your bones strong.15  

A weight-bearing exercise is essentially any activity you do standing.

This can be anything from walking and climbing the stairs to basketball and Zumba. Higher impact exercises such as skipping, tennis and jogging are believed to be effective in reducing the risk of osteoporosis.16 

Muscle-strengthening and resistance exercises include press-ups, lifting weights, or using a muscle resistance band. The aim is for you to incrementally increase the resistance or weight as your muscles get stronger, also known as progressive resistance training, and this has been shown to be the most useful exercise of this type for increasing bone strength.

Current guidance is that you should do 20-30 minutes of this kind of strength training, two to three times each week.17 

Could quitting alcohol and smoking reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis?

It’s widely accepted that excessive alcohol and smoking are bad for you – but did you know it could affect your bone health? Research has shown that both smoking and excessive alcohol consumption significantly lower your bone mass density and therefore increase your chance of developing osteoporosis.18,19 

The final say

Although genetics, sex and age can all play a part in your chance of developing osteoporosis, there are a few external factors such as diet and exercise that you can control to limit that risk:

  • Make sure you are meeting your daily recommended amounts of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin C through a balanced and varied diet. Where it is not possible to meet the requirements through diet alone, you should start to take dietary supplements  
  • You should aim to complete some sort of moderate weight-bearing movement most days, and 20-30 minutes of muscle-strengthening exercise 2-3 days each week
  • Smoking and chronic drinking can increase your risk of developing osteoporosis

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