When most people think about foods that can build strong bones, the first thing that comes to mind is probably milk (or other dairy products like cheese and yogurt).
For years, the dairy industry has worked hard and spent lots of money to promote milk as the premier food source of bone-building nutrients. And it’s worked. After all, how many times have you flipped through a magazine and seen a celebrity sporting a milk mustache?
While it’s true that dairy does contain a good deal of bone-friendly calcium and vitamin D, milk is certainly not the be-all and end-all when it comes to strong, healthy bones. More and more research is showing that some other less obvious foods can also have pretty profound bone health benefits. Take, for instance, seafood and fruit. While both food groups are important in an overall healthy diet, not many people would associate them specifically with bone health.
Some Less Obvious Choices for Bone Health
In a study conducted in China, researchers divided 12,055 men and women into four groups:
- 2,409 men younger than age 45
- 3,439 men older than age 45
- 4,216 premenopausal women
- 1,991 postmenopausal women
All participants were given physicals and had their bone mineral density measured using a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan. Participants also filled out a nutritional questionnaire so researchers could collect data on their consumption of preserved food, meat (mainly pork), milk, seafood, and fruits and vegetables.
At the conclusion of the study, researchers learned some fascinating information about the effects of certain foods and food groups on bone mineral density.
Not surprisingly, intake of preserved food and pork had no effect on bone mineral density. (In fact, the high sodium content in preserved food can actually contribute to osteoporosis.) What was interesting, though, was what researchers discovered about the effects of milk, seafood and certain produce on bones.
In total, 5,760 of the male participants and 6,127 of the female participants consumed less than 250 grams (just over one cup) of milk per week, and 76 men and 62 women had between 250 grams and 1,500 grams (up to about 6 and a half cups) per week.
Although low milk consumption is not unusual inChina, you would still think the people who drank more milk would have fared better on their bone density tests, since they were consuming greater amounts of calcium. But researchers did not find that drinking more milk had a significant effect on bone density in this study population. (Keep in mind that this was just a small fraction on the participants.)
Seafood consumption, on the other hand, was significantly associated with greater bone mineral density in women, particularly in the premenopausal group. A total of 1,842 women reported eating more than 250 grams of fish per week. (That’s the equivalent of about two small 4-ounce fillets.) That minimum weekly serving of fish led to an improvement in their total bone mineral density.
Fruit was also shown to be more bone-friendly than originally thought. Across all four test groups, 4,503 men and 4,706 women reported consuming less than 250 grams of fruit (approximately 1 cup) per week, while 1,324 men and 1,479 women ate more than 250 grams per week. Researchers discovered that the higher fruit intake was associated with higher bone mineral density in both men and women.
Vegetable consumption, however, had no effect on bone mineral density. Researchers speculated this was because Chinese diets mostly contain cooked, rather than raw, vegetables. Cooking can cause depletion of important nutrients.
Why Fish and Fruit?
What is it about seafood and fruit that make them so bone-friendly? Researchers believe that, for fish, it is the high content of omega-3 fatty acids, since some research has shown that a deficiency in this healthy fat can contribute to bone loss.
In addition, omega-3s may help enhance the effects of vitamin D, a critical vitamin that facilitates calcium absorption in the body. (This is why dairy products have added vitamin D.)
As for fruit, researchers believe that their results may be due to the fact that fruit contains high amounts of other vitamins and minerals necessary for bone health, mainly potassium, magnesium and vitamin C. In postmenopausal women, in particular, it is believed that estrogen deficiency can cause loss of magnesium, which in turn disrupts how calcium is absorbed and used. Additionally, potassium helps regulate and balance calcium levels in the body and bones.
Fill Up on These Bone Foods
Regardless of your sex or the status of your bones, adding fish and fresh fruit to your diet is critical for good health. But if you do suffer from bone loss or osteoporosis, these foods are more critical than ever!
Some excellent seafood options that are rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines. Also, be sure to consume a rainbow of various fruits daily, including berries, apples, kiwi, pomegranates and various citrus fruits.
And of course, if you enjoy and tolerate dairy, then definitely include low-fat or non-fat milk products in your daily diet. Your bones — in fact, your entire body — will thank you!
 Zalloua PA et al. Impact of seafood and fruit consumption on bone mineral density. Maturitas. 2007 Jan 20;56(1)1–11.
 Albertazzi P and Coupland K. Polyunsaturated fatty acids. Is there a role in postmenopausal osteoporosis prevention? Maturitas. 2002 May 20;42(1):13–22.