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How to reduce your risk of osteoporosis

The bone disease osteoporosis is common in women and men over 50. Here are some simple tips to keep your bones strong.

Caitlin Reid | Dietitian
September 2017

Known as the ‘silent thief’, osteoporosis is likely to affect as many as 1.2 million Australians, but most of them don’t know they have it. The disease reduces the density and quality of bone, increasing the risk of fractures – many people only realise they have osteoporosis after a fracture.

Any bone in the body can be affected by the disease but the hip, spine, humerus (in the upper arm), pelvis and wrist are the most common places for osteoporosis-related fractures.

Not only are these fractures painful, they can result in disability and a loss of independence. People with osteoporosis are also at greater risk of premature death.

The good news is you can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by making some simple lifestyle changes.

Who’s at risk?

Osteoporosis can affect anyone, but women are at greater risk than men as their bones begin to weaken sooner. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men aged 50+ will experience a bone fracture related to osteoporosis.

As well as gender, other risk factors out of your control include menopause, age, certain medical conditions and genetics. Here are risk factors you can influence:

  • lack of weight-bearing exercise like walking, hiking, climbing gradients and jogging
  • inadequate calcium intake
  • vitamin D deficiency
  • low body weight – a BMI of less than 18.5
  • excessive body weight – ask your GP for advice on lowering your weight for better bone health
  • smoking
  • excessive alcohol consumption – more than 2 standard drinks daily
  • long-term use of corticosteroids (medication commonly used for inflammatory conditions like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis).

Eating enough calcium

Almost 99% of your body’s calcium is found in your bones. The rest can be found circulating in your body, where it plays a role in the healthy function of your heart, muscles, nerves and blood. If you don’t consume enough calcium, your body will maintain your blood calcium levels by taking it from your bones.

Eating plenty of calcium-rich foods is vital to keep your bones healthy. Dairy products like milk, yoghurt and cheese are rich in calcium, and 3 serves of dairy per day are recommended to ensure you get enough – for adults this is 1,000mg a day. Men aged 70+ and women over 50 are recommended to have 1,300mg a day.

One serve is

  • 1 glass (250ml) of full-fat milk: 520mg calcium
  • 200g of regular yoghurt: 386mg calcium
  • 1 slice (21g) of cheese: 160mg calcium.

If you’re allergic, are lactose intolerant or dislike dairy, you can meet your calcium needs through other foods, including:

  • calcium-fortified soy milk
  • bones found in canned salmon and sardines
  • vegetables like broccoli, bok choy and silverbeet
  • almonds
  • dried figs and apricots.

As these sources are all lower in calcium than dairy, you need to include between 3–5 serves each day.

A serve of these non-dairy foods is:

  • 1 cup (250ml) soy milk calcium-fortified: 309mg calcium
  • 90g can sardines in water: 486mg calcium
  • 90g can pink salmon in water: 279mg calcium
  • 10 almonds: 30mg calcium
  • 6 dried figs: 160mg calcium 
  • 6 dried apricots: 32mg calcium
  • 45g (2 florets) of raw broccoli: 15mg calcium
  • 1 cup (75g) raw bok choy: 65mg calcium.

You can also discuss calcium supplements with your GP.

Getting enough vitamin D

Vitamin D plays a vital role in bone health, as it improves calcium absorption from the intestine. It also helps control calcium levels in the blood and maintain muscle strength.

The sun is the best source of vitamin D and most of us can achieve adequate levels through regular incidental sun exposure. But still, many Australians are lacking in this vital nutrient – more than 30% of us have some level of vitamin D deficiency. Insufficient vitamin D can lead to bone and joint pain, muscle weakness and increased risk of falls and bone fracture in older adults.

While sun exposure can help you get enough vitamin D it’s important to remember that you should be sun safe when the UV Index is 3 or above.

Small amounts of vitamin D can be found in some foods including oily fish (herring and mackerel), liver and eggs. But if you have a vitamin D deficiency you may be advised to take supplements if you’re unable to meet your needs through sun exposure or diet.

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