Averting Osteoporosis
By Catherine S. Gregory

You may find it easy to put osteoporosis prevention out of mind, believing that it's something only frail, elderly women should be concerned about. But in fact, around age 30, bone mass begins to decline, setting up a course for this crippling disease. Though associated with hip fractures and the "dowager's hump" of the elderly, osteoporosis literally means "porous bones" and describes any condition relating to bone mass loss, resulting in weak bones and an increased risk of fractures.

According to the U.S. National Osteoporosis Foundation, 28 million Americans are affected by osteoporosis—80 percent of them women. And what many don't realize is that the damaging effects of osteoporosis begin taking place long before obvious symptoms may appear. But there is good news. With the proper diet, hormone balance and regular weight-bearing exercise, osteoporosis may be prevented.

Although bone appears to be a solid, rigid mass, it's actually a living tissue continually undergoing a process called remodeling, through which minerals move in and out of the bone. When more minerals are withdrawn from the bones than deposited, bones become soft and weak, eventually leading to osteoporosis.

Studies have shown that dietary intake of zinc, vitamin K, potassium, fiber, magnesium and vitamin C all seem to play a significant role in maintaining a higher bone-mineral density. Fortunately, it's easy to get these minerals by including a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables in your daily diet. A daily multivitamin may also be a good idea to offset dietary pitfalls.

Calcium is another key. As one of the main components of bone, it is essential to bone formation. Increasing consumption of calcium-rich foods is important—including milk and dairy products. But there are nondairy options for calcium as well, including vegetables such as collard greens, kale, parsley and broccoli and sea vegetables such as kelp and dulse. Calcium supplements are also beneficial if adequate amounts can't be achieved through diet. Most experts suggest avoiding or eliminating caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes, which can be detrimental to calcium stores. And surprisingly, high amounts of dietary protein are also linked to calcium depletion.

The National Academy of Sciences suggests 80 grams of protein per day. Theresa Dale, N.D., dean of the International College of Naturopathy based in Santa Barbara, Calif., says that's too high. "All that heavy protein robs calcium," says Dale, who recommends eliminating red meat and pork and advises a balanced diet that includes fish, vegetables and whole grains. Depending on a person's size, Dale suggests between 45 and 60 grams of protein a day from sources such as fish, organic eggs, seeds and nuts. Protein needs vary from person to person, so consulting your health practitioner is advised.

Estrogen is also an important factor in protecting bone density. Because natural estrogen declines in menopausal women, this group faces higher risks for osteoporosis. The consumption of soy foods—already shown to help alleviate many menopause symptoms—may also exert positive bone-building estrogenic benefits thanks to genistein and daidzein, naturally occurring isoflavones in soy.

In the recent past, several studies favored the use of ipriflavone, a synthetic form of soy isoflavones used to maintain bone density in menopausal women. Yet a study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2001, vol. 285, no.11) showed that ipriflavone did not reduce fracture rates or prevent bone loss and in fact lowered the number of white blood cells in a significant number of cases. With this new evidence, ipriflavone should be used with caution and under the advice of a health practitioner.

Before beginning any osteoporosis prevention plan, Anthony Almada, M.S., collaborator on more than 45 university-based studies, suggests a bone density scan. "A lot of women don't realize that if they're trying to protect their bones, they need to have a baseline," he says. "Before you start taking a new therapy, drug or natural product or both, you should have a baseline bone scan performed."

All experts agree that daily exercise—especially weight-bearing activity that puts pressure on bones, such as walking, jogging, weight lifting and yoga—is crucial in the prevention of osteoporosis. A recent study published in Yoga Journal showed notable bone density increases in women between the ages of 18 and 65 who practiced yoga five times a week.

Although it is ideal to start osteoporosis prevention early in life, it's never too late to begin healthy habits to prevent further bone deterioration. Osteoporosis doesn't have to be an inevitable consequence of aging.

Catherine S. Gregory is a senior editor for Delicious Living.