Eating for strong bones: Does your diet have what it takes to prevent osteoporosis?

The effects of osteoporosis can be devastating, causing bone fractures of the spine or hip that lead to disability, and even death.

Andy De Santis, RD 4 minute read November 19, 2021
Watercolor vegetables

Keeping your bones healthy is an important factor in aging well. GETTY

The ability of our bones to restore themselves declines with age which explains why osteoporosis —which affects at least one in 10 adults over 40 — is more common in older adults. But younger people can be affected as well. And the effects can be devastating.

According to the Mayo Clinic, bone fractures are the most concerning complications of osteoporosis — particularly in the spine or hip. In fact, a fracture in the hip, often caused by a fall, can mean disability, or even death. Sometimes fractures can happen even without falling, and your vertebrae can weaken causing back pain and poor posture.

The good news is that choosing the right diet can help support the strength and healthy aging of our skeletons.

Magnesium is an important mineral for our bones
The first nutrient that’s important to get enough of is magnesium. This might surprise you, but according to Health Canada, many adults in our country have inadequate intakes of magnesium.This is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that magnesium is one of the minerals that forms our bones (even though calcium gets all the credit).

The key dietary sources of magnesium include pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, lima and kidney beans, quinoa, brown rice, almonds, cashews, avocados and even dark chocolate.

Vitamin K. Vitamin K plays a role in bone metabolism and multiple studies have demonstrated that lower vitamin K intake is associated with weaker bones and a higher risk of fractures. Foods high in Vitamin K include dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, collards (bonus, these also contain magnesium) as well as traditional green veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and asparagus. As you can see, vegetable intake is incredibly important in achieving good vitamin K intake. The fruits avocado and kiwi are also good sources of vitamin K.

Note that if you are a taking blood thinning medication, you may need to restrict your Vitamin K intake — speak to your healthcare team to make sure.

Vitamin A. Although not traditionally thought of as a bone strengthening vitamin, there has been an increased interest around vitamin A and bone health. Observational evidence has demonstrated that better dietary vitamin A intake could reduce fracture risk, which is important because it is one of those which some Canadians don’t get enough of.

Some commonly available — and rich — sources of vitamin A include carrots, tuna, squash, sweet potato, cantaloupe, mango and all of the leafy greens that are high in Vitamin K mentioned above.

Vitamin D and calcium. Vitamin D and calcium are probably the least surprising on this list given that they are rightfully considered the quintessential and most important nutrients to bone health. Calcium comprises the majority of the human skeleton while vitamin D helps our bodies better absorb and utilize it. They are the perfect team.

Except that typically, most Canadians don’t consume enough of either.

First of all, calcium needs increase with age, which increases the risk that as we grow older, we are not consuming adequate amounts. It’s important to point out that while we tend to assume that dairy (milk, yogurt and cheese) and dairy alternatives (such as tofu), the variety of foods already discussed also tend to be high in calcium.

Foods that contain both vitamin D and calcium include milk and fortified alternatives and canned fish with the bones.

When it comes to vitamin D, one in three Canadian adults have insufficient levels. In fact, most Canadians don’t consume nearly enough fish (the primary dietary source of vitamin D) to reach adequate vitamin D — an issue which becomes more prominent with age as bone health considerations grow. The body’s ability to produce vitamin D from sun exposure also declines with age, which is why Health Canada recommends vitamin D supplementation for those 50-years-old and over. According the agency, 85 per cent of Canadians who supplemented with vitamin D had optimal blood levels, a number that dropped to 60 per cent in those who didn’t.

Salmon, whether fresh or canned, is among the richest food sources of vitamin D — canned salmon containing bones is a bone health superfood.

Keeping your bones healthy is an important factor in aging well. And as long as you include the most key nutrients in your diet, you will not only be setting yourself up for optimal bone health, but also overall health and wellness.

Andy is a registered dietitian and multi-book author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at