Build your bones

Diet high in calcium and Vitamin D is key

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Did you know that you reach your peak bone mass by the age of 30?

Unfortunately, bone mass decreases as we get older, which puts us at risk for osteoporosis, a condition characterized by weak and brittle bones that can lead to painful and lifethreatening bone fractures.

It is estimated that about one in four women and one in eight men 50-years of age or older have osteoporosis, and health experts are concerned the problem could grow.

But the condition does not happen overnight. Osteoporosis begins early in life and progresses slowly. In other words, it is important to take action earlier in life to avoid problems later.

One of the most important ways you can reduce your risk for osteoporosis is to ensure you are eating a balanced diet that is high in calcium and Vitamin D.

Calcium is a key mineral for healthy bones. In childhood, it helps us build bone, while in adulthood it helps slow the progression of bone loss. Unfortunately, many of us don't get the amount of calcium that we need.

The charts listed above outline how much calcium you should get every day. For adults over 50 years of age, the recommended amount is 1,200 mg per day. For milk drinkers, that could translate to about four eight-ounce glasses of milk (cow or fortified soy) a day. Eating a variety of calcium-rich foods is the best way to meet your calcium needs. As you can see from the chart, many foods contain calcium, including canned salmon (with bones), spinach and almonds. Foods from the Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide Milk and Alternatives Food Group such as milk, cheese and yogurt contain the highest amounts of calcium in a form that is well-absorbed by your body.

For those people unable to meet their calcium needs through diet alone, a low-dose supplement can be used. But remember, calcium supplements are best used to augment the calcium you get in food - not to replace it.

Calcium doesn't work alone. Vitamin D helps absorb calcium in order to build and maintain our bones and to protect us from osteoporosis. A key source of Vitamin D for our bodies has always been the sun. Sunlight converts a substance naturally found in our skin to Vitamin D. Unfortunately, because of our northern latitude, studies show that many Canadians are deficient in Vitamin D, especially during the winter months.

Certain kinds of fish, particularly cold water fatty fish, and fortified dairy foods are good sources of Vitamin D. Take a quick look at the Nutrition Facts label on foods to identify which foods contain Vitamin D. Refer to the chart for Vitamin D-rich foods.

Unfortunately, most people are unable to get enough Vitamin D every day from their diet since it isn't as widely available in our food supply. That's why many people require a Vitamin D supplement to ensure that they get enough.

Generally, Health Canada recommends 600 IU/day for men and women ages 19 to 70 and 800 IU/day for men and women 71 years of age and older. In addition, Health Canada recommends that all adults over the age of 50 take a Vitamin D supplement of 400 IU each day. After a quick assessment of your diet, if you need to supplement, look for Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) as it is well-absorbed by your body.

Physical activity can also play a role. Activities like walking your dog, dancing, jumping rope and climbing stairs help maintain bone strength. These weight-bearing activities send a message to the bones in your legs, spine and hips to get stronger. Aim for at least 30 minutes of weight-bearing activities per day.

Muscle-building activities are just as important. They work the major muscle groups in your arms and legs, strengthening your bones. Include exercises such as lifting free weights or using exercise bands. Keep in mind that small amounts of exercise can quickly add up throughout the day. See Canada's Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Living for more ideas to keep active.

Elizabeth St. Godard is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region. Nanette Zettler, a registered dietitian at the Youville Centre, also contributed to this column.

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