Nutrition for Bone Health

Calcium
When you think bone health, what is the first nutrient you think of? I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you said Calcium! Yep, calcium is crucial for bone health. It is the key component of hydroxyapatite, which makes of the mineral matrix that keeps you teeth and bones sturdy and strong. Our bones are also constantly breaking down and building up – and in order to properly build, they need adequate amounts of calcium. This “adequate amount” ranges from 1,000mg- 1,300mg per day depending on age and gender and mainly comes from dairy products, almonds, leafy greens, tofu, beans, lentils, and some fish fish.

Vitamin D
Now, while calcium is the key component in bone, it pretty much is no good without its partner in crime, vitamin D. Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, so no matter how much calcium you eat (or drink), your body isn’t absorbing much of it if you lack vitamin D. Vitamin also helps in that bone remodeling (breakdown and building) process I mentioned.

Vitamin D has become a pretty hot nutrition topic recently. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is on the verge of becoming a global public health issue. Why? Well, if you are reading this post right now, you are likely sitting inside staring at a computer or phone screen as opposed to soaking up the sun’s UV rays. Our primary source of vitamin D comes from the sun so the decreased time spend outdoors and the increased use of sunscreen that have been seen around the globe are causing vitamin D deficiency rates shoot through the roof!

There are a few food sources of vitamin D, including fortified dairy products, some fatty fish, and mushrooms, but these can’t really provide enough to meet our need of 600-800 IU per day (and most people need up to 2,000 IU per day if they are deficient).

Exercise
The final key player in bone health isn’t a nutrient; it is exercise!- specifically weight-baring exercise. Simply carrying the weight of your skeleton in activities like walking, running, jumping, and stair climbing all help in that formation of strong bones. Not to mention, exercise improves strength and balance, which can help decrease risk of falls and broken bones.

Other Nutrients
In addition to these top three, researches have also found that low vitamin C and vitamin K levels also put people at risk of poor bone mineralization. On the other hand, people who had diets high in fruits and vegetables were found to have stronger bones… just one of the millions of reasons to eat more fruits and veggies!

Controversy
A few studies have found that high calcium intake, greater than the recommended daily intake doesn’t provide any additional benefit when it comes to bone mineral density. There have also been associations between high calcium intake (especially from supplements) and heart disease risk. Moral of the story- more calcium isn’t always better.

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Bread for Lunch?

This post is a little different. I wanted to share this little anecdote about how studying abroad has changed the way I describe healthy dietary patters- so here I go…

“The buns are in the oven”. This is what my host mom told me around 11:00am on my first day after arriving in Copenhagen. She explained that homemade buns (rundstykker) are a traditional Danish food- which are basically just big bread rolls. Each family has a unique recipe and the fluffier the buns, the better. Around 11:30am she asked me to help set the table. I put out plates, forks, knives along with the butter, jams, cheese, honey, and Nutella she pulled out of the fridge and cupboard. As the fresh buns came out of the oven just a few minutes later, my host parents, their three year old son, and I sat down at the dining room table for what I thought was a little, traditional mid-morning snack. My host mom cut the buns in half and passed them around the table until we each had a hot bun on our plate. We all helped ourselves to the toppings in the middle of the table easily spreading them as they melted over the warm crumbly surface. For the next hour or so, we sat around the table talking and getting to know each other. I had a total of one and a half buns, as I didn’t want to fill up on bread before lunch—even though they were delicious and I could have had many more. Over the course of the hour that we sat there, my host mom and dad had three or four buns each and continuously offered me more. When they finally finished cutting, spreading, and eating each bun and our conversation had come to a breaking point we cleared the table and washed the dishes. I went to my room to finish unpacking my luggage and take a nap to catch up on my jet lag. I was expecting a nice hot lunch to be ready when I woke up an hour later. Much to my surprise, I woke up from my nap with no food in sight. I didn’t want to ask my host parents when our next meal was because I was starting to get the feeling that lunch was the buns that we had had earlier. As the clock neared 3:00pm and my stomach started to grumble, I went in the kitchen and grabbed an apple to hold me over until dinner. Fast forward to the evening when I went to pack my lunch for Monday, my host mom suggested that I take some leftover buns with butter and cheese for lunch. It finally clicked! Apparently that meal of bread, butter, and cheese was actually a typical Danish lunch. I began to have a slight internal panic attack when I realized that I would be having a light, bread-filled, and protein-lacking lunch for an entire semester.

Among other things, getting used these light Danish lunches (which are almost always filled with bread) was has been a major food obstacles that I have had to overcome since coming to Denmark. Coming from living in a university apartment where I can buy and eat whatever I want (I try not to eat lots of processed food and simple sugars/grains), to not being able to choose what food is in the house and becoming accustomed to eating bread at every single meal has not been easy.

Now, almost two months into my new Danish eating habits, I actually have a newfound appreciation for the diet patterns. At first, it was difficult to overcome the uncomfortable feeling of eating mostly bread for lunch, but I have actually discovered that eating nut and seed filled rye bread actually fills me up quickly and keeps me full throughout the day. These rye breads with lots of nuts and seeds, which are very common in Denmark, have a lot more nutrients—including some protein—than most bread in the long American grocery store aisles. I have had to add an American touch by having peanut butter on my rye bread to make up for some of the protein and healthy fats I am lacking during lunch, but other than that, I have realized that the Danes actually are not crazy just having bread and some toppings for lunch. It has taken some getting use to but I now feel good about eating all of the wholesome grains in bread for lunch every day.

Eight weeks ago, when I realized I would be having bread for lunch everyday, I nearly had a panic attack. I would have never predicted that, today, I actually look forward to my rye bread sandwich everyday for lunch. As a nutrition major at school and an aspiring dietitian, it is fascinating to learn about the various eating patterns of people around the world. Throughout my education, I have always been taught that bread is full of empty calories and should not be the main part of any meal. Not only has living in Denmark given me new cultural experiences, but it has also changed how I look at diet choices of those in different counties and given me a fresh perspective on what healthy eating is defined as.

Study Abroad Update
It has been 3 days since returning from Riga, Helsinki, and Stockholm and had some really interesting (but some boring) lectures on health care. It is definitely interesting to see how cultural differences (such as Latvia’s conservative views on HIV/AIDS and family planning) can have such a large impact on the health care that is (or is not) provided to the citizens. Some unique food experiences on my trip included traditional Swedish meatballs (which were delicious) and reindeer (which was not so delicious)!

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Tomorrow will take me to Dublin, Ireland for the weekend as my next stop in this amazing adventure!