Want Strong Bones? Have Some Nuts and Bread with Your Milk

Researchers discover a new ingredient to ward off osteoporosis, but calcium still tops the list.

April 20, 2009

A substance found in whole grains can help bones stay strong, according to a new study.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—We all know that calcium helps build stronger bones. But Spanish researchers have found that foods rich in phytate, a naturally occurring compound in whole grains, legumes, and nuts, also may boost bone density and protect us from osteoporosis. Their study recently appeared in the Journal of Medicinal Food.


THE DETAILS: Researchers compared bone density of more than 1,400 volunteers who filled out diet questionnaires and found that bone density was higher in people who ate more phytate-rich foods. Low phytate consumption should be considered a risk factor for osteoporosis, say researchers, who urge people to eat phytate-rich foods as part of a balanced diet to avoid suffering from osteoporosis, which can lead to painful bone fractures.

WHAT IT MEANS: Phytate has actually been shown to hinder your body’s ability to utilize calcium, so it may seem weird that researchers now suggest it can keep your bones strong. But as long as you’re getting enough calcium in your diet, you can also reap the additional benefits of phytate, explains Felicia Cosman, M.D., clinical director for the National Osteoporosis Foundation and author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Osteoporosis: Help Prevent--and Even Reverse--the Disease that Burdens Millions of Women (Grand Central Publishing, 2003). “The foods that are rich in phytates may slightly impair calcium absorption, but it’s so minor,” she says. “We aren’t recommending people limit intake of phytate-rich foods. We just want to make sure people get enough calcium.”

Here’s how to get the calcium you need and keep your bones in tip-top shape.

• Hit the right number. As long as you’re consuming 1,200 mg of calcium a day, phytate-packed foods—such as legumes (lentils, beans), almonds, and whole grains—won’t hurt your body’s ability to process the calcium, says Cosman. You’ll reap the bone-protecting benefits both substances provide, plus other perks: Legumes, for example, are packed with fiber, natural phytochemicals, minerals, and vitamins that are beneficial to health.

• Find calcium in multiple sources. Pick low-fat or no-fat dairy products for a big shot of calcium. A serving of yogurt, cheese, or milk generally accounts for about 300 mg of calcium. You can figure that the trace amount of calcium in green vegetables you eat daily can count for about 250 to 300 mg of calcium. Many juices, soy and rice milk products, snacks, and cereals also are fortified with calcium. If you’re still having trouble consuming 1,200 mg, take a calcium and vitamin D supplement. (Vitamin D helps your body process calcium.)

• Keep your bones busy. Americans’ sedentary lifestyle—we sit at work and then go home and sit in front of the TV—has the potential to create a lot of health problems down the road. “Osteoporosis can be a result of our lifestyle. And not only osteoporosis, but heart disease and diabetes, too, because people are completely out of shape,” says Cosman. “It’s really bad. There’s absolutely no doubt.”

But just standing up and putting weight on your bones can prevent muscle and bone deterioration. At work, stand up in your cubicle, take a walk during lunch hour, and take a few minutes to do chair exercises. “Anytime you can get on your feet, you’re doing something good for your bones,” Cosman says. For a rundown of exercise ideas, visit the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

• Work out before work. If possible, do your bone- and muscle-building exercises (you can use free weights, stretchy bands, machines, or even soup cans for resistance) before you leave for work, three times a week. “My patients find that when they get home at the end of the day, they’re less likely to be able to do exercises,” says Cosman. “You may want to make dinner, you’re hungry, you’re tired. You don’t feel like going to the gym or putting on an exercise video tape and jumping around.”

• Gals, talk to your elders. Sufficient calcium intake and weight-bearing exercise can help anyone’s bone health, but it’s particularly important for younger women to make these habits early in life. Feeling immortal is a wonderful part of being young, but if you take a minute to talk to your mother or grandmother about what it feels like to grow older, you may become more inclined to get yourself in better shape today for long-lasting results.