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Good Food For Bones and Joints [And A Quiz]

Doctors tell many women to take calcium and vitamin D, and you will be good to go. But is this enough? What about good food for bones and joints?

If you are of a certain age, you might fall into one of these three categories. You’ve been diagnosed with osteopenia, you’ve been diagnosed with osteoporosis, or you want to keep your bone healthy so that you don’t get either of these conditions.

Calcium, vitamin D and exercise are important, but they are just a part of the puzzle of bone health. In this article you will learn some of the other pieces of that puzzle. I will show you how to get your nutrients from food.

Let’s get started.

The Basics of Bone

Your 200 or so bones are not just a frame to hold up your muscles and skin. They are actually live organs that affect all your other body systems (1).

Bones need to get rid of old cells and build new ones, just like your other organs. Every year healthy bone tissue turns over and regenerates about 10% of its cells.

This means you can completely regenerate your bones every 10 years!

Bones store minerals, protect your organs, and produce red blood cells and immune cells. They attach to the muscles that move your limbs, and this gives your body strength. The joints that connect your bones give you flexibility.

When a bone is strong but not flexible it becomes brittle. Brittle bones are more susceptible to breaking during a fall. 

Bone flexibility comes from a matrix of collagen fibers. Inside this matrix are the minerals that give bones their strength. 

The matrix is made up of crystals called hydroxyapatite. Hydroxyapatite consists of calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and smaller amounts of other minerals like zinc, selenium, boron, manganese, copper and iron. 

Everyone knows you need calcium for strong bones, but people may not realize how many other minerals are in that matrix. All of these are necessary if your bones are going to be at their tiptop health.

The Periosteum

A fibrous sheath of connective tissues surrounds your bones. This tissue, called the periosteum, is attached to the outer surface of the bone by tough connective fibers that penetrate into the bone.

The periosteum acts as a mineral reservoir. When your body shifts away from an alkaline pH, it needs minerals like magnesium and potassium to act as a buffer. If you don’t have these minerals available in your bloodstream, they can come from the periosteum (1).

What Happens In the Bone?

The bone marrow produces all of our blood cells, including red and white blood cells and platelets. This amounts to 500 billion blood cells every day. Yes, you heard that right, 500 billion!

Bones contain active stem cells that can produce many different kinds of mature cells. The stem cells in bone marrow can turn into bone, cartilage, fat or connective tissue (1).

The Life Cycle of Bone

Osteoblasts

Osteoblasts are the cells that produce new bone tissue. After this, osteoblasts turn into osteocytes. Osteocytes are the cells that maintain the bone. 

Osteoblasts, the bone-building cells, produce a hormone called osteocalcin. When osteocalcin is activated by vitamin K2, it begins to form new healthy bone tissue. 

Osteocalcin is released into the circulation when bones break down. Osteocalcin benefits hormonal systems all through the body. For instance, it can impact fat storage in the liver and insulin producing cells in the pancreas. So, the remodeling process of dissolving old bone and replacing it with new affects your whole body.

Osteoclasts

Osteoclasts are cells that break down bone. They do this by excreting substances that dissolve the bone around them. They literally tunnel their way through the bone, leaving a path for the osteoblasts to move in and lay down new bone.

When they were discovered about 150 years ago, we thought osteoclasts’ only job was to break down bone tissue. However, research shows that osteoclasts are derived from immune cells. They can actually modulate your immune system. 

When there is inflammation, osteoclasts break down more bone to help fight the threat. Rheumatoid arthritis is a good example of a condition where the immune system stimulates bone resorption (2, 3).  

So, to produce more osteoclasts, you need to break down bone. An ongoing loss of bone density can be a symptom of chronic inflammation (4, 5). This is a great example of a root cause. You will continue to break down bone at a faster rate until you deal with that inflammation.

What is Osteoporosis?

Osteoporosis is a disease that begins when bone density and bone mass decrease below a threshold. It literally means “porous bone.” The amount of protein and minerals in your bone might be in a normal ratio, but the total amount is reduced. Bones may become brittle and fragile, and prone to fractures.

What Is The T-Score?

The average bone mineral density (BMD) for a large group of adults aged 30-40 years is assigned a T-score of 0. This number is at the top of a bell-shaped curve. The curve is divided into equal units called standard deviations. Anything below the top of the curve on the left hand side is assigned a negative number, depending on how far down, or how many standard deviations, it falls on the curve. 

Your doctor will diagnose you with osteoporosis when your T-score on a DEXA scan is -2.5 or below.

You may also get a Z-score, which is a comparison of your BMD with people of your own age. Z-score is used for premenopausal women, men younger than 50, and children.

What is Osteopenia?

Osteopenia is the name for the early stages of osteoporosis. If your T score on a DEXA scan is between -1 and -2.5, you are in the range of osteopenia.

What is Osteomalacia?

Osteomalacia is a condition of decreased mineral content in the bone, particularly calcium. With osteomalacia you still have the collagen protein that makes bones flexible, but a lack of minerals makes the bones soft.

Rickets is a condition in children where mineral content in the bones is deficient. These children have bowed legs due to their softer bones. In adults, we call it osteomalacia.

A deficiency of vitamin D can cause osteomalacia and rickets. You need vitamin D in order for bones to absorb the proper amount of calcium.

What Is Normal For Bones As You Get Older?

It is normal for human beings to lose some bone density after they reach a certain age.

Up until around age 30 years, your body is building up bones and making them stronger. The peak density of your bones depends on nutrition and exercise when you are growing up.

At around 30 years of age you stop building up bone density. Then in your 40s, your bone density actually begins to decline at a slow rate, about 0.5% per year in a healthy person. 

After menopause, this picks up for women, and they can lose 3-5% of their bone each year. Around age 65 it slows down again to a loss of about 1% each year. For healthy men the loss of bone is slower than for women, and risk of osteoporosis sets in at a later age (6).  

Many factors such as genetics, diet, medications and lifestyle habits like smoking and alcohol, influence bone loss. So, you can slow down or speed up your bone loss depending on how you choose to live, and what you eat.

Nutrients for Healthy Bones and Joints

Protein and Collagen

Collagen is a form of protein. Remember that collagen forms the matrix that makes bones flexible.

Many people take a collagen supplement. Collagen peptides are the best supplement form for your body to digest and absorb. There are many choices out there, including bovine and marine collagen.

You can get collagen from animal-based foods. Even though plants don’t contain any collagen, you can still get the building blocks so that your body can produce it’s own collagen. Read more about collagen boosting plant and animal-based foods.

Protein also makes up the cartilage in your joints, and all the hormones and immune cells that affect the function of your bones.

Calcium

Calcium is the first thing you think of to build bone, and usually the top recommendation your doctor will make. Truly, most of the calcium in your body is in your bones, and nearly half your bone tissue is made of calcium.

If you eat dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt, it is relatively easy to get the calcium you need. This amount is going to be different depending on your age and sex, but typically 3 servings of dairy products each day gives you all the calcium you need. 

Many people don’t eat this much dairy, but you can still get calcium from other foods. Here are some non-dairy sources of calcium:

  • Sardines with bones
  • Salmon or mackerel with bones
  • Cooked kale, collards and turnip greens
  • Tahini
  • White beans like cannellini
  • Edamame and calcium-set tofu
  • Plant-based drinks that are fortified with calcium
  • Mineral water containing calcium

Vitamin D

Vitamin D increases the absorption of calcium in the intestine. It is important for making sure that the calcium you eat actually gets into your body where it can benefit your bones. Vitamin D also helps the kidneys to reabsorb calcium back into the bloodstream, rather than losing it in your urine.

You can make vitamin D when your skin is exposed to the sun. You also get vitamin D from some fatty fish and fortified dairy products. Many people take a vitamin D supplement to make sure they are getting enough.

It can be tricky to figure out the right dose of vitamin D, since too much vitamin D is not beneficial for your bones. Check with your doctor or nutritionist to see if you need a supplement, and how much to take.

Vitamin K

Vitamin K acts as a coenzyme in the carboxylation reactions that allow your bones to bind calcium and create the hydroxyapatite matrix. 

When calcium does not bind properly with your bone, it can accumulate in blood vessels. So vitamin K benefits not only your bones, but also your cardiovascular health (7).  

There are several different forms of vitamin K.

K1 is also known as phylloquinone. You find K1 in leafy green vegetables like turnip greens, kale, Swiss chard, spinach, collards and watercress. K1 is the main form that circulates in the blood, and your liver can metabolize it to MK-4.

K2 is also known as menaquinone. There are several different forms of K2, but the most commonly known are MK-4 and MK-7. Both of these compounds are in the early stages of research for their effect on bone.

You find MK-4 in meat, fish, liver, egg, milk, cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, kefir and some fermented foods. You find MK-7 in natto, sauerkraut and kimchi.

Your gut bacteria can synthesize all the forms of K2 from K1. Your liver and other tissues also metabolize K1 to K2.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is necessary to form connective tissue in your body. That is why people with scurvy, the vitamin C deficiency disease, have loose teeth, bleeding gums and a lot of bruising. The cement that literally holds cells together is missing.

Remember, the flexible matrix in your bones is made of collagen, which is a type of connective tissue. You need vitamin C to make strong connective tissue in your bones and joints.

You can get vitamin C from citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries, kiwi, guava, papaya, tomatoes, kale, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Potassium

Potassium influences bone health by regulating the acid-base balance of your body. When your pH drops too far into the acidic range, your body can mobilize calcium from the bones to bring it back to an alkaline state (8).    

Potassium helps to lower the amount of calcium lost in your urine. A diet with more potassium and less sodium can help you retain more of the calcium you eat.

The best way to get potassium is to eat at least five servings a day of a variety of fruits and vegetables. Good choices that are high in potassium include prunes, avocados, bananas, cantaloupe, mango and leafy green vegetables. Nuts, seeds, milk and yogurt also provide potassium.

Magnesium

Over half the magnesium in your body is in the bone, making up the crystal hydroxyapatite matrix. Women with osteoporosis often have significantly lower levels of magnesium in their blood. 

Studies show that magnesium can regulate levels of parathyroid hormone, which stimulates calcium release from your bone (9). Magnesium is also essential for your body to make and absorb vitamin D, which has its own effects on bone health.

Dark green vegetables, nuts, legumes and cocoa are good food sources of magnesium.

Manganese

Manganese is important for the connective tissues in bone and cartilage. It is rare to find deficiencies of manganese, but when it happens the bones lose their density. 

Whole grains such as wheat and oatmeal are a good way to get manganese in your diet. The refining process destroys a lot of the manganese in grains.

Some other good sources of manganese are firm tofu, sweet potato, mussels, pine nuts and lima beans.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus is the second most plentiful mineral in the body, after calcium. Your bones contain over 85% of the phosphorus in your body. 

Not only does phosphorus make up most of the crystalline structure of bone, it is also found in the fluid surrounding bone. This is the periosteum that I mentioned earlier. The concentration of phosphorus in this fluid regulates actions of the osteoblasts and osteoclasts.

Most Americans have plenty of phosphorus because sodas contain this mineral. But that doesn’t mean you should drink soda! In fact phosphorus in soda is in the form of phosphoric acid, which can increase your acid load. When this happens, you use up more of your minerals trying to buffer your pH and get your body back to an alkaline state (9).

Phosphorus is pretty easy to get through foods. It is in all sorts of meats, dairy products, legumes, whole grains and eggs. 

Boron

Boron regulates the activity of the osteoclasts and osteoblasts, making sure bones have a healthy life cycle. 

You can get boron in your diet by eating prunes, raisins, legumes, nuts and avocados. If you can eat prunes, there is solid research showing they are good for your bones.

Hooshmand et al found that 9-10 dried prunes per day slowed the rate of bone turnover and improved bone mineral density in postmenopausal women (10).

Later more research showed that eating half this amount – about 5 prunes per day – can have the same effect (11).

Prunes can have a laxative effect if you eat too many. If you are tracking your blood sugar, make sure to eat prunes along with a high protein / fat meal to avoid a spike.

Selenium

People with selenium deficiency have slower growth of both bone and joint cartilage. Bones, muscles and red blood cells all contain fairly large quantities of selenium.

You can get selenium from the following foods:

  • Organ meats like liver
  • Seafood such as swordfish, tuna, shrimp, snapper, halibut and salmon
  • Muscle meats (beef, chicken, turkey, pork)
  • Brazil nuts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Yogurt and cottage cheese
  • Whole wheat 
  • eggs

Zinc

All the tissues of the body contain zinc, including the bones. Zinc is involved in so many different chemical reactions that it affects the connectivity and balance of all the body systems. 

Alkaline phosphatase is an enzyme that regulates bone mineralization and requires 4 atoms of zinc in order to function.

You can get zinc from the following animal-based sources:

  • Oysters, crab, shrimp and flounder
  • Beef, veal, pork and dark chicken meat

There are many foods in the plant world that contain zinc. However you do not absorb strontium as well from plants, because they contain substances like phytates that can bind with zinc.

Here are some of the plant-based sources of zinc:

  • pumpkin seeds
  • cashews
  • lentils
  • peanut butter
  • soy products
  • winged beans
  • cocoa
  • teff

Learn more about how to get and absorb zinc from plant-based foods.

Copper

Copper stabilizes the cross-links of collagen and elastin in the bone matrix. 

You can get copper from the following foods:

  • Oysters, crab, lobster and salmon
  • Beef liver
  • Baked potato
  • Cocoa 
  • Nuts (especially cashews) and legumes

Strontium

Strontium provides strength to the hydroxyapatite structure. It can actually replace a small amount of the calcium in bones to make them stronger. Your bones and teeth contain nearly all the strontium in your body.

Strontium ranelate was developed in Europe as a treatment for osteoporosis.  This is not available in the US. Strontium supplements in the US are mostly in the form of strontium citrate.

People usually consider strontium as a treatment rather than a supplement (12).  Make sure to check with your doctor before starting to take strontium supplements.

The best food source of strontium is seafood. You can also get it from whole milk, whole wheat, meats, poultry and root vegetables.

Learn more about how to get strontium from foods.

Silicon

You need silicon to make collagen and incorporate minerals into the bone. People with a deficiency of silicon have smaller and less flexible bones.

Silicon is extremely abundant throughout the earth. Whole grains, bananas, pineapple, mango, dried fruits, root vegetables, sugar cane, and seafood, especially mussels, are especially high in silicon.

Beer has a lot of silicon. Tea, coffee, juices and wine also contain silicon.

Iron  

Iron is essential for bone formation, even though it only needs a very small amount. A single molecule of iron needs to be present in the enzyme that helps to create the collagen matrix of bone.

Iron is also necessary to make red blood cells, which happens in the bones.

Red meats are the best and most bioavailable way to get iron in your diet. You can also get iron from whole grains, legumes, dark leafy greens and some dried fruits.

Best Foods For Bones and Joints

Dairy Products

Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt are a good choice if you can eat them. They contain calcium, phosphorus, strontium, selenium, vitamin D, potassium and protein.

Seafood

Seafood is a super food for bone health. Oysters, clams, shrimp, crab and lobster provide plenty of zinc and copper. Seafood is high in silica and strontium. Fatty fish contain the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. 

Some types of fish, like halibut, are high in magnesium. You can get selenium in many different types of seafood. When you eat fish with small bones, you are getting a good source of calcium. And of course seafood is a great protein food.

Liver

Beef liver may not be a national favorite, but it is a great food for keeping your bones healthy. It contains protein, vitamin C, zinc, iron, phosphorus, selenium and copper.

Plant-based Foods

White beans contain many of the nutrients needed for healthy bones. They have a surprising amount of calcium. White beans have a lot of other bone-friendly minerals like selenium, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron and copper. Beans are also a great source of plant-based protein.

Leafy greens like collards, turnip greens and spinach are high in calcium, iron, vitamin K, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and manganese.

You may not associate prunes with healthy bones, but research shows that just 5 prunes a day can help to increase bone mineral density.

Choosing whole grains over refined flours is healthier for your bones. Whole grains contain more iron, zinc, selenium, manganese, magnesium, strontium, silicon and phosphorus.

Final Thoughts

Bones are not just a skeleton to give us form and structure. They are living organs, constantly turning over old cells and producing new ones. Many vital functions of your body take place in your bones.

You need way more than just calcium for healthy bones and joints. Vitamins, protein and several other minerals are also an important part of the picture.

The way that you live can also affects your bones. Are you feeding your bones with your food and lifestyle choices?

Take a quiz and find out how your food and lifestyle stacks up when it comes to bone health. Just click on the link below.

2 thoughts on “Good Food For Bones and Joints [And A Quiz]”

  1. Pingback: Calcium in Tofu: Everything You Need To Know - The Whole Story LLC

  2. Pingback: Alkaline Diet for Osteoporosis: Yes or No? - The Whole Story LLC

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