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8 Surprising Foods That Can Help Strengthen Bones

Go beyond dairy to help keep your skeleton healthy


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There’s more to healthy bones than calcium-rich milk, although we all know that both milk and foods rich in vitamin D are good for your bones.

Bone is living tissue that constantly rebuilds and repairs itself. Alas, after age 50, bones start to lose density and strength and become porous, which leads to a bone disease called osteoporosis that increases the risk of broken bones. Chances of developing osteoporosis are greater if you’re a woman; however, men also risk developing it, especially after age 70.

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To keep bones strong, we need two nutrients in particular — calcium and vitamin D. Our bodies cannot make calcium, so eating calcium-rich foods is vital. Vitamin D, for its part, helps the body absorb calcium from food and seems to help protect older adults against osteoporosis.

Calcium Needs

How much calcium you need depends on your age and sex. The National Institutes of Health recommends 1,000 mg a day for men 51 to 70 years old and 1,200 mg a day for women in that age group. After 70, both men and women should plan on 1,200 mg of calcium daily.

Some people don’t have the taste or tolerance for dairy, but a variety of foods can help boost bone health. Although few foods have the calcium levels of dairy, if you combine several of those listed below, you can get a full day’s worth. And other nutrients — such as potassium and vitamin C — are important to keeping bones strong, as we explain below. Here are eight foods to incorporate into your diet that can help keep your bones healthy.

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1. Dried figs

These chewy delights are a good source of both calcium and potassium, minerals that work together to help prevent osteoporosis. Dried figs contain healthy plant-based nutrients (phytochemicals) as well as chemicals that can help prevent cell damage (antioxidants). An added plus, according to Christopher Gardner, professor of medicine at Stanford University, is that dried figs are delectably sweet and provide a super-easy snack. You can store them in an airtight container at room temperature for six to 12 months.

Quick tip: Cut the figs into chunks (discard the hard stem) and combine them with other dried fruits and nuts for a customized trail mix.

Serving size: 60 grams (about 2 ounces)

Calcium content: 96 mg

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2. Broccoli

According to a recent survey by Green Giant, broccoli took the number 1 spot as America’s favorite vegetable, followed by carrots and corn. That’s a smart choice, considering that broccoli has easily absorbed calcium and other healthful nutrients, including those essential for bone formation and prevention of bone-density loss. Broccoli is also rich in vitamin C, which also plays a role in protecting against bone loss. You can eat broccoli either raw or cooked. Although some people don’t like the taste of raw broccoli, it’s perfectly safe to eat.

Quick tip: If you prefer cooked broccoli to raw, be sure to make the most of its calcium content by steaming or sautéing instead of boiling.

Serving size: ½ cup raw

Calcium content: 112 mg

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3. Almonds

In spite of the fact that most of us call almonds nuts, they’re not true nuts, they’re seeds; but no matter what you call them, almonds really are a kind of super-nut. Not only do they provide calcium, a mainstay of strong bones, they also offer phosphorus, the second most abundant mineral in the body, which is important for the formation of bones. More than 85 percent of the phosphorus in the adult body is found in the bones. One of its key functions is working together with calcium to form and keep teeth and bones healthy, as well as to help maintain your energy levels. Phosphorus also plays a key role in how well our nerve cells and brain function.

Quick tip: Fit a couple of dozen almonds into a small bag to take along as an on-the-go snack. Sprinkle chopped almonds on salads to add flavor and crunch.

Serving size: Just under ½ cup, about a handful

Calcium content: 75 mg

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4. Oranges

These lovely globes are packed with vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, which may help increase bone density, especially in the spine. One study suggests that vitamin C decreases the risk of osteoporosis in people with lower levels of physical activity. In addition, vitamin C is crucial to the production of collagen, the most abundant protein in the body and a major component of bone. Oranges also contain calcium, albeit a small amount. The good news: The vitamin C present in oranges boosts the absorption of calcium from food and has the potential to speed bone healing after a fracture.

Quick tip: Orange peels contain natural oils. A few rubs of the peel can polish water-stained metal appliances and faucets.

Serving size: One medium-size orange

Calcium content: 55 mg

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5. Prunes

Dried plums, commonly called prunes, are best known for their ability to prevent constipation and possibly colon cancer. But prunes have many other health benefits. One study concluded that eating five or six prunes a day for six months resulted in preservation of bone at the hip. Fractures can occur in any bone but are most common in the bones of the hip, spine and wrist. Start out with a prune or two a day for a week to determine if they cause diarrhea. If not, then gradually build up to five or six prunes spread over the course of the day.

Quick tip: Thanks to their natural sweetness, prunes can spice up mundane dishes. Chop a few into fine bits and scatter on a green salad, or mash into a sharp cheese and spread on crackers for a between-meals snack.

Serving size: ¼ cup (5 prunes)

Calcium content: 20 mg

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6. Beans

Beans of all kinds are a stellar source of calcium, a mineral the body needs to build and maintain strong bones. Calcium comes from the food you eat; your body cannot produce it. Without sufficient calcium in your diet, your body takes it from your bones; over time they become weaker and prone to breaking. Beans also provide magnesium, a mineral that supports healthy bones. Beans are also rich in the mineral phosphorus, which your body needs to make energy.

Quick tip: To prepare dried beans for cooking, add six cups of water for each two cups of beans. Heat to boiling and boil for three minutes. Remove from heat, cover and soak overnight. If you’re using canned beans, simply rinse and drain.

Serving size: 80 raw

Calcium content: White beans: 132 mg; red beans: 93 mg

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7. Sweet potatoes

Surprise! It’s not a potato. This tuber, a specialized storage root that grows below the soil, is a member of the morning glory family not the nightshade family. This colorful vegetable is an excellent source of vitamin A, which is essential for maintaining healthy bones and cartilage, the strong connective tissue that protects joints and bones. Cartilage surrounds the ends of your bones, cushioning the spaces in your joints where bones meet, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Sweet potatoes are also loaded with magnesium, a mineral that reduces the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis.

Quick tip: Don’t store sweet potatoes in the fridge — refrigeration can bring on a hard center and unpleasant taste. Instead, keep them in a cool, dry area with good ventilation.

Serving size: 1 cup mashed

Calcium content: 76 mg

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8. Tofu

Tofu, made from soybeans, is packed with calcium and magnesium, two minerals that help your body build and maintain strong bones. Most of the calcium is stored in your bones, the remainder in blood, muscle and other tissue. Magnesium reduces the risk of fractures and helps prevent the onset of osteoporosis. In addition, this soy-based food is rich in protein, which is an important part of a healthy diet. Proteins are made up of chemical building blocks called amino acids. Your body uses amino acids to build and repair bones and muscles.

Quick tip: Cut a block of leftover tofu into slices or cubes and freeze them overnight on a baking sheet; just make sure they’re not touching one another. Store in a covered container. Frozen tofu will last for several months. To defrost, uncover the cubes and put them on a plate in the refrigerator for a few hours.

Serving size: ½ cup

Calcium content: 126 mg

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