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Eat the Rainbow
for Better Bones

By Maureen Williams, ND

Bones primarily owe their strength to mineralization with calcium—but taking in enough calcium is just part of what is needed to maintain structural strength. New research has found that eating foods rich in brightly colored plant pigments known as carotenoids might help preserve bone mineral density and prevent osteoporosis.

Colorful diet linked to less bone loss

The report, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, comes from the ongoing Framingham Osteoporosis Study. Answers to diet questionnaires from 874 participants, all 70 to 80 years old, were used to estimate their intake of carotenoids in general as well as several specific carotenoids: alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, and lutein plus zeaxanthin. Bone density measurements were taken in the lumbar spine, hip, and wrist upon enrollment in the study and approximately four years later.

Women with high lycopene intake experienced less bone loss in the lumbar spine than women who had low lycopene intake. The difference translated to a 2.5-fold increase in risk of fracture over 17 years in women with low lycopene intake. In men, beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein plus zeaxanthin, and total carotenoid intakes were all associated with preserving bone density.

Fruits & vegetables benefit bones

Carotenoids are the red, orange, and yellow pigments widely found in fruits and vegetables. One common carotenoid, beta-carotene, can be converted into vitamin A in the body, and the entire family of carotenoids is known for being strong antioxidants. Carotenoid-rich foods also tend to be high in other antioxidants such as vitamin C and flavonoids.

Previous research has consistently shown that eating fruits and vegetables benefits bone mineral status, and findings from several studies have suggested a link between eating carotenoids and preventing bone loss. “Our results suggest a possible protective effect of carotenoids, particularly of lycopene, against bone loss in older adults,” said study coauthor Dr. Katherine Tucker of Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. “The presence of carotenoids in fruits and vegetables might partially explain their protective effect on bone mineral density, which has been demonstrated in previous research.”

Steps to protect bones

The following steps help protect bones and prevent osteoporosis

  • Eat a carotenoid-rich diet: Try carrots, tomatoes, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, dark green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, pink grapefruit, watermelon, mango, peaches, and avocado.
  • Exercise. Even gentle weight-bearing exercise such as walking or yoga can help prevent bone loss.
  • Aim for around 1,200 mg of calcium per day (from food and supplements combined). Your body can’t manufacture it and your bones must have it.
  • Find out if you need more vitamin D—many seniors do. Ask your healthcare provider to check your D status with a bloods test and take a supplement if your level is low.
  • Go low-salt. Limit your intake of sodium, caffeine, and soda, which promote bone loss.
  • Replace some animal protein with plant protein. Getting enough protein, but not too much, is important for bone health.

(Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89:1–9)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.


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