Bones of Steel

Strong is the new skinny, folks! And to be strong, first you have to start with the foundation- YOUR BONES! For most of us, our “foundation” reaches its peak in our 20’s. By the time we hit our 30’s, it’s all downhill! Uggh! According to the Wall Street Journal, we lose an average of 2 inches in height between the ages of 30 and 70, and 3.1 inches total by the age of 80.


The answer is most likely, “Yes.” (Uggh, again!)  At 5’3 1/2” (yes, I stubbornly lay claim to the 1/2 inch), I went into full-blown panic mode after reading this. And thus began my quest to educate myself so that I might be among the 20% of us who don’t shrink. (That’s right, there IS hope). Through proper diet, supplements, and specific exercises, you can ensure that your bones stay in their best possible shape.

DIET: In order to have strong bones, you need calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K2, and magnesium. Vitamin D, K2 and magnesium all work together to help our bodies absorb calcium as well as direct the calcium to our bones and teeth, where it is needed. If you know what foods to eat, you can literally eat your way to stronger bones. (I do!) But here’s the headline: they are probably not the types of foods commonly associated with strong bones.

According to Web MD, these are the top calcium-rich foods: cheese, yogurt, milk, sardines, dark leafy greens (like spinach, kale, turnips, and collard greens), fortified cereals (such as Total, Raisin Bran and Corn Flakes), fortified orange juice, soybeans, fortified soy milk, enriched breads, grains, waffles… Wait, WHAT??

You read that right, enriched WAFFLES made the WebMD list!   REALLY?

Here is my response to this list… Thanks, but no thanks. We are trying to build a strong frame, not  larger waistlines. (See the blog, Still Fat?) I refuse to drink orange juice, which has just as much sugar as a can of soda. I steer clear of all cereals. In addition, I cut dairy from my diet 10 years ago. (My grief with the dairy industry is a future blog to come.) But here is the short story: the dairy industry has basically brainwashed us with its “Got Milk?” and “Cheese, Glorious Cheese” campaigns. It has told us, since we were young, that we needed to drink milk and eat dairy to have strong bones. Well, I’m here to tell you that’s bullshit. I have my vitamin levels checked at my yearly physical, and my calcium levels are optimal (without taking supplements or eating dairy). Here is the added bonus to cutting out dairy-  my skin cleared up and I dropped 5 pounds. Hooray!

Some studies suggest that 75% of people are intolerant to dairy products. However, the vast majority of those people are unaware of their sensitivities. Symptoms of a dairy allergy include headaches, frequent cold or flu, rashes or skin problems, stomach bloating, Irritable bowel syndrome, depression, inflammation in your body, and low iron levels. If any of these symptoms ring true to you, then (like me) you probably have at least some form of an undiagnosed dairy intolerance.

Have no fear however, you can still easily get enough calcium, even if you eat a dairy-free diet. For example, I cup of milk has 300mg of calcium. Surprisingly, 1 cup of cooked spinach has 240mg of calcium, only 41 calories, and is packed with vitamin K, A, folate, magnesium, and iron. Not to mention fiber. All those densely packed nutrients, or irritable bowel syndrome and depression? It seems like a no-brainer to me. So…

My top non-dairy calcium rich foods: Spinach, White beans, Dried figs, Canned salmon, Bok choy, Edamame, Kale, Broccoli (and broccoli rabe), Collard greens, Tofu, Okra, Almonds, Sardines, Arugula, and Sesame seeds. All of these foods are great sources of calcium, but you still need magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin K2 to build strong bones.

Magnesium is essential for absorption & metabolism of calcium.
Magnesium rich foods: bananas, avocados, dark leafy greens, oatmeal, soybeans, quinoa, kidney beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, and fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and halibut. I always get enough of this in my diet, so I don’t take any magnesium supplements.

Vitamin D is essential to the absorption of calcium.
Vitamin D rich foods: fatty fish such as salmon, canned tuna, cod liver oil, cheese, fortified orange juice, fortified milk, fortified cereal, and beef liver. I eat a lot of salmon and tuna. But as stated earlier, I steer clear of dairy, cereals and juice of any kind. And beef liver? No thank you. However, you can get all the vitamin D you need by spending 10-20 minutes in the sun each day. With the sun being the leading cause of aging skin, I don’t do this consistently either. So, if I haven’t eaten a fatty fish on a given day, I take a supplement.

Vitamin K2 is another vitamin essential for strong bones (among other health benefits). It helps to direct calcium into the bones where it belongs, holds calcium inside the bone, and helps keep it out of the blood vessels. Many believe it is even more important than vitamin D in protecting against osteoporosis. If you are deficient in either vitamin D or K2 (which most of us are), you are likely deficient in the other as well. In addition, vitamin K2 is now being linked to wrinkle prevention! Whoo Hoo! (I promise to fill you in on this one in a future blog.)
Vitamin K2 rich foods: This vitamin is extremely difficult to find in our contemporary Western diet, but here goes. First, milk, cheese and butter from grass-fed cows. Seems easy, right? Nope. Today’s cows are largely fed corn and soy, no longer grazing on the grassy prairies of 19th century America. Milk from today’s cows have negligible amounts of K2.  So what else? Egg yolks, but you need to eat 2 egg yolks every day to get the recommended daily allowance of vitamin D, magnesium, and K2. I just can’t commit to 2 eggs every day. K2 is also found in goose-liver pate (an acquired taste, which is a fancy way of saying – ‘yuck’) and Nato, a fermented soy bean dish common in Japan. Speaking of acquired tastes, I’ve tried Nato once when I lived in Asia. Let’s just say, it was one too many times. It is slimy and tastes like how I imagine a bowl of sewage might taste. I know it’s totally cultural, and I pass no judgement, but I was born into the wrong culture to get used to eating the stuff. So… On days I don’t eat 2 egg yolks (which is often), I take a supplement. Which brings us to the next section.

SUPPLEMENTS: I am not big on popping a pill to meet your dietary needs. I strongly believe in getting as much as you can through food. So, I intentionally take most of my supplements with dinner so that I can tailor my supplement intake to what I’ve eaten that day. For example, if I’ve eaten foods rich in calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and K2, I skip the “strong bone supplements” that day. But on the days I fall short, I will take the supplement I know I was lacking.

If you are under 50 years old, it is recommended that you get 1,000 mg of calcium and 200 IU of vitamin D. If you are over 50, you should increase this amount to 1200 mg of calcium and about 600 IU of vitamin D. Magnesium supplements, on the other hand, may not be the best idea. The body needs a steady supply of magnesium throughout the day. Most supplements available on the market are 100 mg of magnesium or less due to the size of the pill. So, a diet rich in magnesium is the best way to maintain your magnesium levels. In contrast, vitamin K2 is a supplement I would highly recommend taking because most of us in the Western world are not getting this vitamin through our diets. The recommended daily allowance is still under debate, but new studies are coming out all the time on this hot new vitamin that has long been ignored. Currently, between 180-200 micrograms of K2 are recommended. Make sure you take these supplements in conjunction other “strong bone supplements” for the maximum benefit.

EXERCISE: I’ve been talking about the benefits of weight training for some time now. (See the blog, Step Away From the Treadmill as well as Bye Bye Flabby Arms and The Best Butt Workout) Guess what folks?  The benefits of weight training just keep on stacking up. Weight training or resistance exercise stimulates cells to produce new bone. The evidence that weight-bearing exercise improves bone strength is overwhelming. So strap on your weight lifting gloves and get busy.

BAD LIFESTYLE HABITS: There are things we do that negate the positive effects of eating right and taking supplements.
1. Salt: Salt deprives the body of calcium. The more salt you add to your diet, the more calcium is carried out of your body through your urine. Reduce your salt intake to maximize the calcium from your diet and supplements.
2. Cigarette Smoking: There are so many reasons to quite smoking. First and foremost: smoking has been proven to cause cancer. Enough said? No? Well, cigarette smoking also doubles your risk of bone loss. There you go- one MORE reason to quit smoking.
3. Alcohol Consumption: Drinking in excess of 2 drinks per day not only accelerates the aging process of your skin and hair, but it also is linked to an increase in bone loss and fractures. If you are getting “fall-down” drunk, you are obviously increasing your risk of fractures. Hello? But you are already on fragile framework if you are drinking more than 2 drinks per day or 10-14 drinks per week.
4. Cola: In past blogs I’ve described what happens to the body when you drink soda, but new evidence says that colas, more than other carbonated sodas, contribute to weakened bones. The research is unclear as to whether women are opting for that Diet Coke as opposed to other, calcium-rich drinks, or if the extra phosphorus in cola prevents calcium absorption. Either way, if you opt for a cola on the rare occasion, take a calcium supplement that day.
5. Over Exercising and Eating Disorders: This does not apply to most of us, but it needs to be said. If you are exercising at such a high level or you are suffering from an eating disorder that affects your menstrual cycle, you are at severe risk of early bone loss. Lower estrogen levels caused by both of these situations lead to weakened bones.

I know this seems like a lot of information. It is!  So here is the 6 Part “Bones of Steel” Summary…
1) Calcium: 1000-1200 mg of calcium-rich foods, or take a supplement.
2) Vitamin D: 200-600 IU of vitamin D-rich foods, 20 minutes of sun, or take a supplement.
3) Vitamin K-2: 180-200 micrograms in K2-rich foods (hard to do), or take a supplement.
4) Magnesium: Eat a magnesium rich diet.
5) Do weight bearing exercise to build strong bones.
6) Don’t sabotage your calcium absorption by making bad lifestyle choices such as smoking, excessive drinking, or becoming to thin through over exercising or an eating disorder.

So there you have it. Strong bodies start with strong bones. Be fierce when it comes to protecting your body. You only have the one you’re born with, and I plan on fighting for every 5’3 and 1/2” of mine!

Live Young,

Darnell 🙂

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