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The biggest myths about bone health, debunked
We know the importance of keeping our bones healthy and strong. But there’s lots of misinformation out there about how to do it. We’ve got the facts.
Your bones carry you around every day of your life. They literally provide the structure you need to do just about everything. Putting a little effort behind keeping them healthy now will help keep you strong later.
Here’s why it’s so important: Almost half of adults over 50 in the U.S. have low bone mass, or osteopenia.1 This puts them at risk of having weaker, more brittle bones. That’s a problem known as osteoporosis.2
Weak bones break more easily. And a break can make it harder to stay healthy and independent as you age. So we know we need to take care of our bones. But it’s not always clear how to keep them healthy.
Here are some of the most common myths you might have heard about bone health, along with the facts to set them straight.
Bone health myth #1: To keep your bones strong, milk and other dairy products are a must
The facts: Dairy foods like milk and yogurt are great sources of bone-building calcium. Milk is often fortified with vitamin D, too. Vitamin D helps your body take in the calcium from milk. But many other foods can help you meet your calcium needs, says Michael Guma, DO. He’s the director of rheumatology at Riverside Medical Group, part of Optum, in North Arlington, New Jersey.
“You can get calcium in green leafy vegetables like broccoli and kale. It’s also in beans, tofu and soy,” he says. Some other surprisingly good sources: canned salmon or sardines with bones, chia seeds and figs.3
“Of course, there are also calcium- and vitamin D-fortified foods,” he adds. Cereals, orange juice and plant-based milk often have vitamin D added. “A glass of fortified orange juice has as much calcium and vitamin D as a glass of milk.”
Try to meet your calcium needs with a variety of foods, says Dr. Guma. “But if you need a little help meeting your daily calcium need, you can take a supplement.” Your doctor can help you decide if that’s necessary, including how much to take. (When you’re ready, you can shop for supplements right from the Optum Store.)
Bone health myth #2: The body can’t take in calcium from plant foods as well as calcium from dairy foods
The facts: Many plant foods contain calcium that your body take in well. Greens like kale, broccoli, cabbage and bok choy are good sources of calcium. And you can get calcium from them just as well as from milk.3
But there are a few plant foods that contain compounds that can block calcium. These include spinach, rhubarb and some beans.3 So don’t rely only on these foods to meet your calcium needs. But don’t skip them either. They’re packed with other nutrients that are great for your body.
Bone health myth #3: Only weight-bearing and resistance exercises can help your bones
The facts: Weight-bearing exercises force you to work against gravity and carry your weight.4 Walking, running and playing tennis are all good examples.
Resistance exercises include lifting weights or using resistance bands.
Both types of exercise put healthy stress on your bones, helping to make them stronger. But they’re not the only ones to think about for bone health, says Dr. Guma. “Any exercise is good when you think about it. It all helps prevent falls and helps build stamina.”
Exercises that improve your balance, like yoga or tai chi, are also part of a good bone health routine. That’s because they can help make you less likely to fall. “You’re working on fall prevention by building muscles and strengthening your core,” says Dr. Guma.
As always, check with your doctor before starting a new fitness program. If you already have weakened bones, you may not be able to do some exercises.
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Bone health myth #4: Men don’t need to worry about weak bones
The facts: About five times more women than men over 50 have brittle bones. But that doesn’t mean men don’t have to worry about their bone health. In fact, more than one-third of men over 50 have low bone mass.1
Men have larger skeletons. And they tend to start losing bone later in life than women do.5 But around age 65 or 70, the differences begin to even out. Men and women lose bone at the same rate at that age.
For some men, their weak bones are caused by other things, says Dr. Guma. For example, men being treated for prostate cancer may be at higher risk. Their treatment can lower their levels of other hormones. Others may be taking certain drugs that can weaken their bones.
Bottom line: Men need to do all they can to protect their bone health, too.
Bone health myth #5: Most people need mega-doses of calcium supplements to keep their bones healthy
The facts: Large amounts of calcium are usually not needed. Getting too much can even cause kidney stones or heart problems, says Dr. Guma.
You probably don’t need a lot of extra calcium to meet your needs anyway.
Most adults need between 1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day.6 On average, women get about 840 milligrams of calcium a day from food and drinks. Men average about 1,000 milligrams. “So it doesn’t take much to fill in the gaps,” says Dr. Guma.
Thinking about taking calcium pills? Dr. Guma suggests looking at what you eat first to see if there are any shortfalls. If you do need to take a supplement, aim for no more than 500 milligrams at a time. And always check with your doctor before you start one.
Dr. Guma’s healthy bone prescription is simple. “Work on what you eat to get as much dietary calcium as you can. Take a supplement if you need to. And do exercises to strengthen your bones.” Those steps can go a long way toward keeping your bones healthy at any age.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Osteoporosis or low bone mass in older adults: United States, 2017–2018. Published March 1, 2021. Accessed July 9, 2022.
- NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases, National Resource Center. What is bone? Last reviewed October 2018. Accessed July 9, 2022.
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements. Calcium. Updated June 2, 2022. Accessed August 8, 2022.
- NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. Exercise for your bone health. Last reviewed October 2018. Accessed July 8, 2022.
- NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center. Osteoporosis in men. Last reviewed October 2018. Accessed July 8, 2022.
- National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Calcium: Fact sheet for health professionals. Last updated June 2, 2022. Accessed July 6, 2022.
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