It’s never too late—or too early—to adopt simple lifestyle changes that will strengthen your skeleton and help delay bone breakdown.
Official recommendations encourage women between the ages of 19 and 50 to get 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day and women older than 50 to get 1,200 milligrams. Amy J. Lanou, Ph.D., senior nutrition scientist for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and coauthor of Building Bone Vitality (McGraw Hill), suggests lowering that to 500 to 800 milligrams, preferably from dairy-free food sources. Lanou explains that a higher calcium intake is unnecessary and, if it comes from supplemental sources, may cause constipation and negatively impact the absorption, production or metabolism of other nutrients.
Dairy foods—cheese and ice cream in particular—are highly acidic, but the body prefers a slightly alkaline pH; to neutralize the acidity from dairy, your body pulls calcium from the bones. Hip fracture rates are highest where calcium intake from dairy foods is highest, including in the U.S. and Northern European countries.
Almond milk, with 300 mg of calcium per 8 oz, can be used in recipes and smoothies in lieu of cow’s milk.
Classified as a cruciferous vegetable, this brother of broccoli has a leg up on lettuce. Arugula contains about eight times the calcium, fives times the vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin K, and four times the iron as the same amount of iceberg lettuce—not to mention more fiber, folate, protein, potassium and magnesium. Add it up and arugula can help defend against heart disease, osteoporosis, sun damage and certain cancers. Arugula has a peppery, slightly bitter taste and can be used in salads or even to make pesto. Two cups = 60 mg of calcium.
Broccoli is among nature’s richest sources of sulforophane, a compound that’s thought to strongly inhibit cancers. Research suggests that sulforophanes stimulate the body’s own cancer-fighting enzymes, slowing the rate of breast and prostate cancer cell growth. Two cups = 80 mg of calcium.
Arguably the king of the leafy greens, kale scored No. 1 in a ranking of 84 veggies by the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. Crammed with nutrients, notably vitamins K, A and C and calcium, kale is also a cancer-fighting superpower. Kale’s 45 flavonoids combine antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits to help fend off bladder, breast, colon, ovarian and prostate cancer. Noggin-nourishing antioxidants in kale also keep the brain sharp as you age. Use three cups to make kale crisps and you’ll be snacking on 270 mg of calcium.
Just one tablespoon of sesame seeds has 90 mg of calcium and only 52 calories. Sprinkle over salads or sauteed greens.
Dark, leafy greens are the rock stars of the produce department: Nutrition powerhouses like turnip greens have been shown to prevent everything from cancer to heart disease while keeping your body and brain in top shape. Sautee turnip greens like spinach. Two cups = 210 mg of calcium.
One medium orange contains about 70 mg of calcium and 60 mg of the antioxidant vitamin C. Oranges also supply flavonoids—among them hesperetin, which regenerates vitamin C, helps fight cancer, protects the heart, and prevents viral infection. In addition, because of the potassium they contain, oranges lower the risk of developing hypertension. Eat oranges whole and fresh; the fruit’s rind and membranes protect the juice from oxygen, which destroys fragile vitamin C. In addition, the flavonoids are found in the membranes surrounding each orange segment, as well as in the pith and in the fuzzy stemlike structure running through the center of the fruit.
This peppery plant is jam-packed with vitamins K, A and C, a triple threat of antioxidants that battle the effects of aging and disease. Heart-healthy nutrients like folate, fiber, potassium and beta-carotene also protect the heart and lungs, while calcium builds stronger teeth and bones. “By providing us with a diverse array of antioxidants, mustard greens help protect our bodies from damaging free radicals,” says Christine Avanti, C.N., holistic nutritionist in Los Angeles and author of Skinny Chicks Don’t Eat Salads (Rodale). Raw or cooked, the pungent green works as a side or combined with casseroles or stir-frys. Two cups = 120 mg of calcium.
Figs and Prunes
Dried fruits such as figs and prunes are concentrated versions of all the fiber and vitamins in regular fruit. They also have high concentrations of sugar, so it’s best to eat them in small portions, and with nuts or whole grains so you’re getting additional fiber and protein to help maintain steady blood sugar. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that women who ate about eight to 10 prunes a day had significantly higher bone mineral density in their forearms and spines compared with those who ate dried apples. Prunes provide boron and potassium, two elements that help suppress the breakdown of bone. Two dried figs have 60 mg of calcium and two prunes have 40 mg of calcium.
Nutrient-dense almonds are packed with potassium, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, calcium and protein. Loaded with monounsaturated fat and fiber, cholesterol-free almonds are also good for your heart. Almonds contribute to longer satiety, preventing those peaks and valleys of blood sugar levels that keep so many of us snacking throughout the day. 1/4 cup (28g) = 70 mg of calcium.