Bone health is an under-appreciated aspect of beauty, longevity and living a vibrant life. Often, adults aren’t tested for bone density until they’re at an older age when the state of our bones should be top of mind early on. Bone loss including osteoporosis affects men and women and leads to fractures and other health problems. Foods that contain certain minerals including calcium, magnesium and vitamins D and K have proven critical for optimizing bone health long-term which is why these foods top the list of 50 foods critical for bone health. This is an important focus starting…now!
These easy snacking nuts contain several compounds that benefit bone health. Protein is an underlying key macronutrient for bone health, critical both at the bone foundation stage in childhood and also for protecting bone health as an older adult. Almonds also contain vitamin B6 which helps keep homocysteine levels in the blood under control. If levels rise, the collagen structure within bones can weaken, leading to osteoporosis.
2. Almond Milk
Milk alternatives have come a long way and fortification has a lot to do with that. If you make your own almond milk, pressing almonds in water and straining it, you won’t have a good source of calcium. If you buy a store-bought brand that’s been fortified, you’re getting a great source. The type of calcium that’s fortified in non-dairy milks is well absorbed in the body, greatly contributing to your daily needs.
These tiny fish contain something that’s really important for our bone health: bones! Anchovy bones are so small that they’re not harmful if eaten – in fact they’re so small that they’re impossible to remove from the fish. That’s ok because they’re full of calcium. Anchovies also contain protein, b-vitamins and omega-3’s. If you enjoy the taste, include them as a snack on crackers, toast, pizza or salad.
Both a cruciferous vegetable and a leafy green, arugula contains a special compound called erucin that has shown anti-inflammatory properties that support the body in addition to b-vitamins like folate. Most importantly, arugula is a source of both calcium and iron, important for bone strength.
Not only are we in the middle of asparagus season right now, but this green veggie contains a very important bone-building vitamin: fat-soluble vitamin K. The absorption of this vitamin is increased with fat so grill up your asparagus with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. The recommended intake for vitamin K each day is 90 mcg for women and 120 mcg for men.
6. Baked Potato
A simple baked potato actually has more benefits than you might think. Because potatoes grow in the ground, they’re rich in bone-building minerals like phosphorus, potassium and even a little calcium. Add some sour cream, cheese and/or chopped greens to your next potato to boost the bone-building nutrients even more.
7. Black Beans
All beans support the bones with their protein, magnesium and zinc content but black beans have a special antioxidant that helps to calm inflammation in the body and support its systems – possibly even bone health! Omega 3 fatty acids are thought to support the strength of your bones through decreasing levels of inflammation and so black beans with their dark pigment may also do the same via their antioxidant content.
Broccoli, broccolini, broccoli sprouts – all of the parts of this cruciferous family are good for the bones. Broccoli is packed with vitamin K which is a co-factor to creating a protein in the bones called ‘osteocalcin’. Studies on vitamin K intake found better bone mineral density in people who ate higher amounts. Eat your broccoli!
9. Brown Rice
Rice might not automatically come to mind as a bone builder, but it actually has some interesting qualities for our structural system. Just ½ cup contains over 10% of our daily value of magnesium which is critical for our bones. Studies show that getting enough magnesium actually can prevent fractures.
10. Brussels Sprouts
Brussels sprouts have made a culinary comeback and just in time for supporting your bone health and beyond. An important source of vitamin K, Brussels deserve a place in your veggie rotation. Since this is a fat-soluble vitamin, make sure to serve them up with some olive oil or cheese to increase their natural flavor as well as their bone building potential.
11. Canned Pumpkin
Think beyond the holidays for this bone supporting food. Canned pumpkin is versatile and can be used in baked goods, hot cereal and smoothies. It contains nutrients important to bone health including vitamin K, potassium and B-vitamins.
12. Carrot Juice
Anytime you juice a veggie, the vitamins become a big more concentrated. That’s why regular carrots aren’t as potent of a source of vitamin K that their juice is. Just ¾ cup can get you over 30% of your daily vitamin K needs. For this important bone building vitamin, think beyond the green leafies and enjoy some delicious carrot juice.
Cashews are a wonderful source of protein to help build a strong foundation in the bones. These versatile nuts are also rich in calcium (10 mg per 1 ounce!), iron, potassium and phosphorus. These nutrients work together to build a strong yet flexible bone matrix including collagen for structural support.
Humble chives contain some hidden bone-building nutrients including vitamin K like other greens you might eat in salad. Vitamin K is directly linked to better bone density. Chives are so flavorful that they can be chopped up and added to greens, casseroles, egg dishes, side-dishes, and soups. Get creative in adding in chives more often and think of them beyond the garnish.
Soft cheese, hard cheese and blue cheese all make the list of bone builders for a variety of reasons. Though a little goes a long way (cheese is packed with saturated fat and is therefore dense in calories, too), cheese can be an important source of protein and calcium in addition to vitamin K2 which has been shown to improve the quality of healthy bones.
16. Cod Liver Oil
Not the cod liver oil of your childhood, this omega-3 fatty acid now comes in better flavors like lemon and is absolutely packed with vitamins A and D. Vitamin A is critical for bone-building osteoblasts which help lay down new bone in the body. Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption so this simple supplement/food can really support the body (and now in a more delicious way).
17. Collard Greens
Like some of the other greens in this list, collards also contain fat-soluble vitamin K. Chop them up and sauté them in some olive oil, herbs and spices to serve them as a gorgeous green side-dish that’s also good for bone health. Fat helps the body absorb vitamin K from food.
18. Dried Figs
Sweet figs are not only a delicious snack; they also contain some powerful bone-builders including calcium and vitamin K. When fruit is dried, it’s easily carried along on hiking and road trips or even for a snack at school or work. Dried figs are high in fiber to boost a healthy gut. Gut bacteria actually make some vitamin K for us in the large intestine so having a strong microbiome can be supported with natural, high fiber foods.
Soy foods are good for the bones for a variety of reasons. Tofu, listed further down, is processed in a way that includes calcium. Soy milk is actually fortified with calcium. Edamame is a little different. It contains vitamin K, iron, and up to 10% of an adult’s daily calcium needs in a cup. Edamame is a natural bone building snack – no fortification needed!
One of the few food sources of the important bone builder, vitamin D, is egg yolks. Among other nutrients, including protein, zinc, choline and vitamin A, the yolks of eggs support the health of our bones. Vitamin D is hard to find in natural foods because we make it when sunshine hits our skin. Good thing there are still some sources such as egg yolk because so many of us spend our time indoors now.
This cold-water fish is a wonderful source of protein in addition to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, both important aspects of bone health. Getting enough protein is important when building bone mass as a child but it also helps preserve bone health during the aging process. Once you’ve had a fracture, having good protein status becomes even more important so weave in some fish for these nutrients in addition to all your plant-protein options.
22. Iceberg Lettuce
Don’t discredit simple Iceberg lettuce – it in fact does have nutrition to offer. All greens are good for you and even Iceberg brings vitamins and minerals to the table. You can’t cook it down to concentrate the nutrients like you can with other greens (kale, mustard greens, spinach and beyond) but it is versatile and adds a nice crunch in addition to the wonderful vitamin K content important for building bones.
Superfood kale shows up on many of our ‘top 50’ lists because it is so rich in a variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It helps bone health, too! Cook it up or blend it to concentrate the health benefits; this leafy green is packed with bone supporting vitamin K1. There’s no wrong answer with kale. Just choose the variety you enjoy the most – curly, baby or dinosaur.
24. Kidney Beans
All beans offer critical bone building nutrients. One benefit of kidney and other beans is their protein content. Plant-proteins absolutely count towards your daily needs and there’s evidence that protein plays an important role in creating and maintaining bone mass. Kidney beans are also rich in magnesium and zinc which are other minerals that help with bone formation.
When thinking about bone builders, kiwifruit might not immediately come to mind but it does contain some nutrients that are very beneficial. Kiwis are rich in potassium which helps support bone density. They also contain magnesium and phosphorus, which are key for happy bones. Bone density is all about minerals because that’s what our bones are made of for strength and durability.
Known for their amazing fiber content, there’s more to lentils than complex carbohydrates and plant-based protein. These versatile pulses actually contain many bone-supporting nutrients including magnesium, potassium and zinc. Lentils are so versatile, you can use them in soups, stews, and salads but they can also be used in desserts like cookies, cakes and even brownies.
27. Lima Beans
When’s the last time you had one of these less-popular beans? Lima beans are actually fantastic when prepared correctly plus they’re high in fiber, magnesium, protein and zinc to support bone health. Try purchasing lima beans frozen then thawing (not boiling) and topping with a fresh herb dressing or adding to a soup at the end of its cooking time to maintain their firm texture.
28. Marinara Sauce
If you’ve got a choice of pasta sauce next time you’re out, choose marinara to give your bone health a boost. Red tomato sauce offers 20% of your daily magnesium needs. Magnesium preserves bone structure by stimulating the hormone calcitonin, a bone structure regulator. Get creative with your spaghetti sauce and use it in a variety of soups, stews, casseroles, on pizza and a variety of whole grain pasta.
Plant-based milks count towards your nutrition, too, but there’s something about dairy milk that’s particularly supportive of bone health. Not only is it high in protein (higher than many plant-based milks including any nut/seed milk, coconut milk or rice milk) but it’s also a great source of calcium and vitamin D. If you do drink dairy milk, you could be doing your bones a favor. If not, you’ll need to look elsewhere for these nutrients.
Some mushrooms you find in the grocery store have a special label indicating they’ve been grown with sunlight or sunlamp exposure which actually makes them a good source of vitamin D. Look for cremini, white, maitake, and portabella mushrooms that are labeled as such. All of these can actually exceed the recommended daily allowance, making then a rich source. Add mushrooms to scrambles, soups, and salads to easily access this supportive compound.
31. Mustard Greens
Bitter, flavorful mustard greens contain some important bone-building nutrients. Mustard greens are among the best source of vitamin K1 which works together with other vitamins and minerals to build strong bones. Find the taste a big strong? Mix it in with other, softer flavored greens like spinach or butter lettuce.
Not commonly consumed in the U.S., this fermented soybean product is a wonderful bone-builder traditional to Japanese cuisine. Uniquely, natto is a source of vitamin K2 which has special bone-supporting properties. Many other foods contain sources of “K1”. Natto has a pungent smell and a strong taste so start slowly and work up to enjoying it. Try it in miso soup or as a condiment to a sushi dish.
33. Orange Juice
OJ on its own isn’t a true bone builder but the benefit comes from fortified varieties. In fact, an 8-ounce glass of fortified oj can contain up to 30% of your daily needs. This type of calcium is well-absorbed in the body and the amount is similar to what you’d get in a glass of dairy milk. Fortified foods can really help you meet your needs when incorporated into a balanced diet. Read the labels to make sure that your OJ is helping meet your calcium needs.
When prepared correctly, okra can be an incredible addition to any dish. Commonly found in Indian cuisine and in the American South, this green veggie can be used in a variety of recipes. Best of all, it is a good source of vitamin K which has been linked to denser, stronger bones when people consume it throughout their lifetime in addition to adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D.
Several seafood options show up on this list, but oysters have a particularly special property: their zinc content. Studies show that zinc is a critical mineral for bone health and oysters are among the richest sources of this important mineral. Zinc plays a role in bone tissue renewal and mineralization, so it helps keep them strong and healthy.
36. Peanut Butter
Even a little peanut butter – about 2 tablespoons – makes a big dent in your daily magnesium needs, providing up to 49mg or 12%. Magnesium works together with other bone building minerals to help prevent fractures. Oil roasted peanuts are also an option; ¼ cup of peanuts provides 16% of your daily value of magnesium. Whichever way you enjoy peanuts – whole or ground – they’re important to the health of your bones.
37. Pinto Beans
Beans of all kinds are helpful for a variety of systems in the body due to their antioxidant status, high levels of fiber and vitamins and minerals. Pinto beans are a plant-based source of zinc – many other sources come from beef and seafood. They also provide b-vitamins to keep homocysteine levels in check (at high rates this amino acid is bad for the bones). Finally, they’re good sources of plant-based protein AND magnesium for bone health.
38. Pine Nuts
Think pesto and beyond for pine nuts because they’re great for your bones. Include them on salads or in other recipes because, aside from b-vitamins and protein for bone health, pine nuts contain key minerals you need for strong, supple bones that don’t lose their ability to age well. Importantly, pine nuts contain minerals like magnesium, zinc, potassium and phosphorus which all work together for a healthy bone matrix.
Think beyond the banana and include plantains in the diet not only for their delicious flavor and texture but for your bones as well. The National Osteoporosis Foundation suggests both bananas and plantains for potassium, a nutrient that helps keep calcium stores in the body and in the bones where it belongs. Experiment by boiling, grilling or oven-roasting plantains.
40. Rainbow Trout
Like many other fish listed here, trout is a cold-water fish high in omega-3’s which have been linked to healthy bones. Trout is also a great source of protein in addition to magnesium, B12, phosphorus and zinc – all of which have been linked to strong bones. Trout is now being sustainably farmed in many areas producing a new, healthy type of farmed fish called ‘aquaponics”.
This fatty fish is a delicious option when it comes to bone building potential. Particularly salmon with bones (think a canned variety with soft bones included), there’s a reason that the American Heart Association recommends two servings of salmon per week. Protein, omega-3’s to calm inflammation and support calcium balance, B12 and magnesium top the benefits to your bones.
These tiny fish are sometimes forgotten in the dinner line-up, but they deserve a place in your bone-building foods repertoire. Sardines are actually fatty fish as well, packed with omega-3’s. Similar to halibut, trout and salmon, they’re great sources of protein and like most seafood, contains magnesium for strong bones. When you eat small fish like sardines, you eat the bones and that’s a wonderful source of calcium.
Shellfish aren’t good sources of omega-3’s like fatty fish but they contain some other important minerals for your bones. Shrimp are a rich source of protein and zinc for strong bones. In fact, a serving of shrimp meets nearly 10% of your daily requirements for zinc which supports both the immune system and helps the body absorb calcium, aiding in bone healing and repair.
44. Soy Milk
When you think bone building, soy should be one of the first things that comes to mind. Studies show that the calcium in soymilk (45% of your daily needs in a serving!) is very well absorbed in the body. Some soy milk actually contains more calcium than regular dairy milk. Though tofu is high in calcium due to the way it’s processed, soy milk is fortified with calcium, so it is a good source.
“Eat your greens” has new meaning when thinking of bone health. Spinach is packed full of so many nutrients, but it is a great source of vitamin K1 for building healthy bones. Cooked spinach is more concentrated so having it this way really maximizes the vitamin level. Enjoy cooked spinach in egg dishes or served as a side or condiment in addition to any meal.
Though you need to use a bit of caution with swordfish because of its potential for high mercury content, it contains nutrients that are great for the bones. Swordfish is another source of omega-3 fatty acids and also is a source of vitamin D. In fact, just one 3-ounce serving contains nearly your entire daily value! Enjoy swordfish on occasion if mercury isn’t an issue for your health.
Tofu is a high calcium food – no dairy required. It is made into blocks in what is referred to as “calcium set” that is used as a coagulant when making the tofu. Manufacturers use calcium sulfate which is added to soymilk, helping turn it into a solid form that you can slice up and use in a variety of ways in your kitchen. This type of processing creates a very calcium-rich product that’s wonderful for creating strong bones.
Sometimes as salmon takes the stage, tuna is forgotten about as a fellow omega-3 powerhouse. Tuna is also high in zinc, magnesium and a great source of protein. It’s also a convenient seafood, often coming in canned or bag varieties for on-the-go snacking. Tuna has a special property, similar to swordfish and a couple other types of fish: a high level of vitamin D content which is critical to bone health.
49. Turnip Greens
If you’re looking to get more creative with your greens, consider adding in some turnip tops for a delicious flavor in addition to a great source of calcium. These greens have a more bitter flavor, similar to mustard greens, so it may be best to mix them in with other, softer and milder greens while you’re experimenting. To maximize the calcium content, try them cooked or sautéed so you get a delicious serving of calcium-rich greens.
Dairy foods are just a great source of calcium and yogurt is no exception. Use caution with any type that contains added sugar as having high blood sugar levels can actually work against bone health. Aside from calcium, yogurt is a great source of protein which is important for bones. It’s also a fermented food which supports your gut microbiome, a part of the body that actually makes its own vitamin K – another bone building nutrient!
What are your questions about bone health and food?
Let us know in the comments!
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International Osteoporosis Foundation. https://www.iofbonehealth.org/nutrition. Accessed 7/23/19.
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NIH Osteoporosis Resources. https://www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/bone-health/bone-health-life-health-information-basics-you-and-your-family. Accessed 7/23/19.
NIH. B6. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB6-HealthProfessional/. Accessed 7/23/19.
NIH. Magnesium. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/. Accessed 7/23/19.
NIH. Vitamin D. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/. Accessed 7/23/19.
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Reduce inflammatory process in cells, tissues, and blood vessels, helping to slow aging and reduce risk of long-term disease.
Prevents and repairs oxidative damage to cells caused by free radicals.
Support the body’s resistance to infection and strengthen immune vigilance and response.
Improves mood, memory, and focus.
Reduces risk factors for common degenerative and age-related diseases.