The foods and nutrients that matter for your bones

What do you need to know to protect your bones? For all the details, read our recent interview with Bess Dawson-Hughes, director of the Bone Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston and a professor of medicine at Tufts.

What do you need to eat to protect your bones? Enough protein, fruits and vegetables, vitamin D, and, of course, calcium. The basics:

  • Protein: Shoot for at least 60 grams of protein (women) or 80 grams (men) each day. Rule of thumb: Your protein target in grams is roughly equal to half your weight in pounds.
  • Fruits and vegetables: Aim for at least 10 (1/2-cup) servings of fruits and vegetables each day. There’s no better way to neutralize excess acids that lead to bone loss.
  • Vitamin D: Adults up to age 70 need 600 IU per day. Over 70? It rises to 800 IU. You’re unlikely to get enough from foods. See Where to find vitamin D below.
  • Calcium: The Recommended Dietary Allowance for adults over 19 is 1,000 milligrams per day. It jumps to 1,200 mg for women over 50 and men over 70. Read on to find out if you need a supplement.

How much calcium you get from foods

The calcium targets of 1,000 mg or 1,200 mg per day include what you get from food and supplements combined. Here’s what’s in some popular calcium-rich foods…and a few that have less than you think.

Are you getting enough? Count roughly 250 mg for each serving of dairy you eat (150 mg for greek yogurt) and 250 mg for the rest of your diet. Then see if you need a supplement.

Food Calcium (mg)
Lactaid Calcium Enriched Milk (1 cup) 500*
Silk Original almond or soymilk (1 cup) 450*
Orange juice, with calcium (1 cup) 350*
Milk (1 cup) 300
Sardines, canned (3 oz.) 250
Swiss cheese (1 oz.) 250
Salmon, canned, with bones (3 oz.) 240
Yogurt, fruit variety, nonfat (5.3 oz.) 230
Mozzarella, part skim (1 oz.) 220
Cheddar cheese (1 oz.) 200
Greek yogurt, plain, 0% (5.3 oz.) 170
Ricotta cheese, part skim (¼ cup) 170
Greek yogurt, fruit variety, 0% (5.3 oz.) 150
Collard greens (½ cup cooked) 130
Cottage cheese, 2% (½ cup) 130*
Spinach (½ cup cooked) 120
Country Crock Calcium with Vitamin D (1 Tbs.) 100*
General Mills Cheerios (1 cup) 100*
Ice cream, premium (½ cup) 100
Kellogg’s All-Bran Original (½ cup) 100*
Quaker Original Instant Oatmeal (1 packet) 100*
Tofu, firm (3 oz.) 100*
Frozen yogurt (½ cup) 90
Almonds (23 nuts, 1 oz.) 80
Bok choy (½ cup cooked) 80
Ice cream, regular (½ cup) 80
White beans (½ cup cooked) 80
Whole wheat bread (1 slice, 1.5 oz.) 70*
Edamame, shelled (½ cup cooked) 50
Kale (½ cup cooked) 50
Orange (1) 50
Salmon, canned, boneless (3 oz.) 50
Broccoli, chopped (½ cup cooked) 30
Cream cheese (2 Tbs.) 30

*Contains added calcium. Sources: USDA and company information.

Where to find vitamin D

You won’t find much vitamin D in foods. Aside from salmon and other fatty fish, most foods aren’t naturally rich in vitamin D. Many foods (milk, most cereals, and margarine, for example) are fortified with D, so check the labels. They list vitamin D as a percent of the Daily Value (%DV), which is 400 IU.

Another source: the sun. Ultraviolet (UVB) radiation from the sun penetrates uncovered skin and converts a compound in the skin into what eventually becomes vitamin D. But your skin’s ability to make vitamin D depends on where you live and what time of year it is. Here’s how the intensity of UVB changes from north to south and from summer to winter.

June

As long as you’re in a green, yellow, or red area—in other words, pretty much anywhere on the map—your body will easily make vitamin D when uncovered skin is exposed to the sun’s UVB radiation in June.

November

If you’re in a blue or turning-blue area—anywhere except the South and Southwest—in November, you’re not going to get much UVB sunlight to make vitamin D. By the end of December, the entire country—with the exception of South Florida and a few pockets in the Southwest—is solid blue.

Note: The small blue dots represent locations of measuring stations.

Photos: © Davizro Photography/fotolia.com (cereal), USDA UV-B Monitoring and Research Program at Colorado State University (maps). Illustration: Jorge Bach/CSPI.

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10 Replies to “The foods and nutrients that matter for your bones”

  1. Many doctors and nutritionists advocate supplementing with magnesium d and vitamin k plus vegetables and exercise for bone loss issues instead of a lot of dairy and calcium. In fact many recent studies show the dangers of calcium supplementation. I’m not a vegetarian and I supplemented with a lot of calcium plus d and it did nothing for my osteoporosis. I’ve read medical studies of osteoporosis existing in huge dairy consumption countries. I love your newsletter but sometimes find material that represents outdated sources.

    1. Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer to this. There are a lot of factors that come into play: where you live, the time of year, the time of day, cloud cover, the color of your skin, etc. Here’s what the National Institutes of Health says:
      “It has been suggested by some vitamin D researchers, for example, that approximately 5–30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 AM and 3 PM at least twice a week to the face, arms, legs, or back without sunscreen usually lead to sufficient vitamin D synthesis…”
      https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/

  2. I’m looking forward to including this information in my menus.
    I do that with a lot of the information I receive in
    Nutrition Action Newsletter. I have appreciated that
    publication for the past 18 years!

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