health

Bone health in your 20s, 30s and 40s: We asked a dietitian how to protect our bones for life.

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Thanks to our brand partner, Dairy Australia

Recently it dawned on me that I had forgotten about my bones for a couple of decades.

I’ve certainly been paying attention to my kids’ bone health, but in the meantime, I’ve probably taken my own for granted. Yes, I’ve been lucky enough to feel strong and healthy, but who knows how long that will be the case for?

I read recently that poor bone health affects two in three Australians over the age of 50, and this number is expected to increase as we now live longer than previous generations.

As kids we’re encouraged to exercise and eat calcium-rich foods to grow healthy bones, but as we get older the message seems to get lost in the other distractions of life. It only becomes important again once we’re elderly and we’re faced with the possibility of weakened bones and an ageing body. So, what about the years in between?

It’s actually not hard to give your bones a good chance of staying strong if you take some simple steps to give them what they need. We know that calcium is essential for building strong bones as well as supporting muscle and nerve function.  Almost 99 percent of our body’s calcium is found in our bones. If we don’t get enough calcium, over time our bone strength can decline and may increase our risk of osteoporosis.

My friends know the way to my heart is with cheese, and this is a very good thing. Australians get around 60 percent of their calcium intake from milk, cheese and yoghurt. In fact, dairy foods are one of the richest sources of calcium you can get. While calcium is found in other foods, meeting our calcium needs without dairy foods is more difficult.

For example, you would have to eat five cups of cooked broccoli, 32 brussels sprouts, 165g of almonds or five cups of red beans to provide your body with the same amount of calcium as you’d get from one 250ml glass of milk. The added benefit of dairy foods is that they also provide a bonus package of other bone-building nutrients like protein and phosphorus.

To get the full lowdown on how we can protect our bone health and give our bones the best chance for the future, I asked Accredited Practising Dietitian Joel Feren for his advice. He’s the director and principal dietitian at Hearty Nutrition, and he’s also known as The Nutrition Guy.

Joel, we know that bone health and calcium is important for babies and kids, but why should we be paying more attention to it in our 20s, 30s and 40s?

We are still building our skeleton in our 20s so it’s crucial that we don’t drop the ball with our calcium intake during these years. Ensuring we meet our calcium requirements at this life stage is a healthy investment. Your bones will thank you for it in years to come.

By 30, our peak bone mass has been achieved but it is still vital to maintain the health and strength of our bones, so keep up your calcium intake.

The 40s can be a difficult time for women. Hormonal changes, as a result of menopause, can accelerate bone loss. It’s why post-menopausal women need to consume even more calcium in their diet after this life event.

What do our bones need to stay healthy?

The main ingredients for good bone health are calcium and vitamin D. Calcium is the major building block of bones, while vitamin D helps absorb it. Together they act in synergy to help promote bone structure and health. They’re the perfect couple.

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The final piece of the puzzle is exercise. Weight-bearing exercises – think walking, running, weight training – are all activities that are protective of our bones. These types of exercises help to strengthen our muscles and improves coordination and balance, which in turn can help to reduce falls and consequent fractures.

What are some ideas for exercises or activities that are beneficial to bone health?

Any type of movement is going to be good for you. And any type of physical activity that supports your weight will be a present for your bones. The list is endless: weight training, walking, hiking, dancing (yes, a boogie is good for your skeleton), running, skipping, jumping and jogging. Get moving in a positive way.

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Whether you're climbing walls or stairs, any movement is a positive step. Image: Getty.

What are good sources of calcium and minerals that we can incorporate into our diets every day?

Dairy foods are a wonderful provider of highly absorbable calcium. Examples include milk, yoghurt, cheese and custard. Other good sources are sardines and other bony fish, nuts and seeds, legumes, green leafy veggies and fortified soy products.

Want to boost your calcium intake? At breakfast you could kick off the day by adding yoghurt to your morning bowl of cereal or brekkie smoothie, or by adding parmesan to your scrambled eggs.

At lunch, add cheese and a handful of spinach to your sandwich or salad (include tinned salmon for an extra calcium hit).

Afternoon tea is a great time to munch on some cheese and crackers or down a tub of yoghurt, while a tofu (aim for one that is calcium-set) stir-fry with plenty of greens and a sprinkling of sesame seeds is a delicious and nutritious, calcium-rich dinner.

Say cheese: Just a few brekkie and lunch options to think about. Image: Unsplash/OLA Mishchenko
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Is dairy fattening?

I often get asked if dairy foods are fattening. The truth is some are high in calories- ice cream and cream- and should only be included occasionally. But milk, cheese, yoghurt and even custard (both low-fat and full-fat) should form part of your daily diet.

In fact, studies show that people who regularly consume dairy foods as part of a balanced diet may be better able to maintain their weight and have a reduced risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. The reason may be due to dairy’s impressive nutritional profile.

Dairy foods are a source of vitamins A, B12, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and phosphorous, as well as protein and low GI carbohydrates. Eliminating dairy foods unnecessarily from your diet means you’ll be missing out on more than just calcium.

Dairy’s been in the spotlight a bit lately. Is there any truth to the rumour that dairy products leach calcium from our bones?

Absolutely not! The assumption that acidic foods cause the body to leach calcium from the bones in order to neutralise the acidity is completely baseless. While dairy foods are acidic in nature, they do not cause an acidic environment in the body.

The body has a number of systems in place to manage the acid-base relationship. Our lungs and kidneys principally coordinate this. So, the assumption that dairy foods disrupt the acid-base balance is completely unfounded.

So it really is pretty simple to give our bones the TLC they need?

It certainly is. While genes play a part in how strong our bones are, it is thought that lifestyle choices – such as diet and exercise – influence 20- 40 percent of our adult bone mass. To give our bones the best chance at staying strong, we need to give them enough calcium, vitamin D and physical activity.

This content was brought to you with thanks from our brand partner, Dairy Australia.

Thanks for the heads-up, Joel. Now, where did I put my cheese...

Dairy Australia

Our bones make everyday things possible – getting out of bed, walking the dog, a night out with friends. Building and maintaining strong bones means we can keep doing what we do today, into the future. Three simple actions for bone health can make a difference – adequate calcium, weight bearing exercise and vitamin D from the sun. Learn more about these actions and common bone FAQs here.
Dairy Australia is the national services body for the dairy industry. It is an independent, not-for-profit organisation whose purpose is to help dairy farmers adapt to a changing environment and achieve a sustainable industry.

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