When I start mentioning bone health most people start picturing glasses of milk and other dairy products. Of course starting the Paleo diet means leaving milk and other dairy products behind. Surely then this is worrying? Where will I get my calcium? What about bone issues like osteoporosis?
Let’s clear the air about Paleo and Osteoporosis.
Did you know that our bones are actually living and constantly changing? This process begins in utero (in our moms belly’s) and our bones continually strengthen until about the age of 20, where we reach our peak bone mass. For this reason childhood as well as adolescent nutrition is vital for our bone health (1). As we begin to age, we start to lose bone density. In a healthy body, new bone tissue is constantly being deposited at the same time. You can read all the really sciencey stuff about our bones here.
Osteoporosis is literally latin for porous bone. It is a disease in which the density and quality of our bones are greatly reduced. The problem with this is that the individual will then be at a greater risk for fractures and breaks if they fall or bump themselves.
Who is at risk for Osteoporosis
One of the biggest issues with osteoporosis as a disease is that it has a silent and slow progression with usually no symptoms. Very often the first sign that there is an issue is when a fracture occurs.
Risk factors include the following:
Age: As we age our bone density begins to drop, the majority of hip fractures occur in people over the age of 50 (2)
Being a Female: Unfortunately women who have undergone menopause are more susceptible to bone loss that men. This is due to the drop in the hormone estrogen. Estrogen is a vital part of bone formation in women.
A Family History of Osteoporosis: A family history of osteoporosis implicates a genetic predisposition to the disease. If a parent has suffered from osteoporosis or a fracture take care to undergo the necessary tests.
Hormonal Changes From a Hysterectomy: As we’ve mentioned, the hormone estrogen is vital for bone health. Woman who undergo a hysterectomy where the ovaries are also removed need to be aware that this is a major risk factor for osteoporosis (3).
Frequent Consumption of Alcohol: People who more than 2 units of alcohol per day have a 40% increased risk of suffering from an osteoporotic related fracture. This is due to a poor nutritional status in those who drink (4)
Very Low Weight For Height: People who have a very low weight for height, have an increased chance of developing osteoporosis and potentially suffering from a fracture. It turns out being heavier means that gravity gets to play a role in ensuring that you maintain a certain bone density (5).
Smoking: People who smoke who have a history of smoking have an increased risk of fracture in comparison to non-smokers.
Sedentary Lifestyle: People who have lead, or lead a sedentary lifestyle are far more likely to suffer from decreased bone density than those who lead an active lifestyle. This includes people who sit for longer than 9 hours per day (6).
Low Dietary Calcium Intake: Yes calcium intake has a role to play in helping to prevent osteoporosis but it is not the only factor.
Calcium is important for bone health in that without appropriate levels of calcium in your blood stream your body begins to leach calcium from your bones. The problem with this is that your bones mineral density then decreases. So we should just take a calcium supplement right?
Not so simple. Those ‘got milk‘ adverts have been a bit misleading to say the least. Bone health and preventing conditions like osteoporosis are a lot more complicated than calcium and dairy products.
Calcium and friends
Calcium is just one of the essential minerals needed for bone health, basically without these other nutrients calcium will not function properly:
Vitamin D: Without Vitamin D calcium cannot be absorbed by your body. In fact there are numerous studies illustrating that for calcium to be beneficial vitamin D needs to be present (7, 8).
The good news is that Vitamin D can be acquired from perfect Paleo foods such as beefs liver, fatty fish, eggs and mushrooms which have been grown under UV lights . However the best and most effective way to get your vitamin D fix is by exposing yourself your skin to the sun for 10-15 minutes per day. Even your bare arms and face will be enough. For anyone who works indoors in the office think about whether you get enough sunshine and get outside!
Vitamin K2: This vitamin is essential for ensuring that any calcium you ingest or supplement with ends up in our bones and not dangerously deposited along the walls of our arteries (9, 10).
Vitamin K2 is also easily available through many Paleo appropriate choices such as egg yolk, butter, chicken livers, salami, chicken breast and ground beef. If you look at any of those ingredients it shouldn’t be difficult to get enough vitamin K2 in.
Back to the question of the Paleo diet and bone health. What about dairy? Where else do we get calcium from?
Paleo foods for healthy bones
Tinned fish with the bone: Many fatty fish such as salmon or sardines are tinned along with the soft bones. Instead of disposing of the fish bones,rather mash them into the fish with some paleo mayonnaise or make paleo fish cakes. These fish bones are not only incredible rich in calcium, but the fish itself is also rich vitamin D and the ever healthy omega 3 fatty acid.
Eat your greens WITH grass fed butter: Sounds too good to be true? Your dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and okra are all packed with calcium. To improve on that, simply add grass fed butter which is rich in vitamin K2.
How the Paleo lifestyle can help
Its important to remember that following the Paleo way may feel nutrition centric, but it is imperative that you view it as a lifestyle. What we mean by this is that our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t only eat well, they exercised, continuously. For them exercise was crucial for survival, and the irony is that our sedentary lifestyles are killing us.
The next step in improving your bone density after improving your nutrition is exercise. Move more. Take the stairs or even give the dog an extra walk each day (11) If you can start with any weight bearing exercise such as yoga, pilate, aqua aerobics or physically lift weights. The research shows that low bone density and osteoporosis can be reversed at any age through the correct combination of nutrition and exercise (12).
NOTE: As usual, before embarking on any sort of physical activity check with your doctor.
Paleo and Osteoporosis – Paleo-Friendly Foods for Healthy Bones