If I ask you the best ways to support bone health and reduce the risk of bone loss, you would likely tell me to “eat foods high in calcium, vitamin D and magnesium.” You might also tell me to exercise. These two habits have certainly been identified as helpful in the war on bone loss, the loss often serving as a prelude to a higher risk of fractures and in particular, hip fractures. New research suggests that fanning the flames or reducing general inflammation in the body can also help to limit bone loss and hip fracture risk. This is a true case of “food as medicine.”
According to National Institute of Health statistics, nearly 53 million Americans have osteopenia or osteoporosis. When bone density is lost, bones become more brittle and more vulnerable to breaking. So a simple fall could turn into a serious hospitalization, especially if the hip bone is broken. Another very fragile area is the wrist. When you lose your balance and fall, you typically put your hand down to brace yourself as you’re hitting the floor. A broken wrist or arm can seriously impact activities of daily life.
Isn’t thinning of the bones a natural part of the aging process? Most experts acknowledge that because we are less active as we get older, we do lose muscle and bone mass, and hormone levels that support bone health, like estrogen, certainly decline. They also suggest that we need to intercept this process and delay it or minimize it for as long as possible. Research from Ohio State University suggests that there is a strong connection between diet — very specific food choices — and preventing osteoporosis.
The research team extrapolated data from the Women’s Health Initiative, looking for a connection between levels of inflammatory nutrients (foods that instigate inflammation) and bone mineral density (BMD) levels and prevalence of fractures. The Women’s Health Initiative is the largest study to date involving postmenopausal women and was conducted between 1993 and 1998. Using an index called the DII (dietary inflammatory index), researchers tracked how hip, lower arm, and all fractures matched to the index from the WIH data sets.
The researchers provided food questionnaires to 160,191 subjects from the study with no fractures at the beginning of the study. From this group they isolated 10,290 women and tracked them for six years, collecting fracture incidence reports along the way. Using specific formulas and models the researchers found that there was an “association” between diets that induced inflammation and fracture risk — but specifically in young, Caucasian women.
Having a high DII score raised the risk of fractures by almost 50 percent in white women who were younger than age 63. Women with the more optimal diets (less inflammatory in nature) lost less bone density during the six-year tracking period, even though they were noted to have overall lower bone mass at the beginning of the study. It’s important to mention that a more inflammatory diet was not associated with significant increases in fractures. The experts suggest that it’s possible that women on the lower inflammatory diets also exercised more (another health habit that goes hand-in-hand with a healthier diet) and therefore may simply have more risk for injuries and fractures. That might explain why the two dissimilar groups had similar rates of fractures.
Having persistent levels of inflammation in the body is associated with a number of chronic conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer. So noting a link, even in a subset of the population, with regards to inflammation and bone density loss is not surprising. The typical American diet filled with processed foods, added sugars, refined carbohydrates, high sodium levels, and saturated fat is a highly inflammatory diet. In fact, even one meal full of saturated fat can instigate inflammation and raise the risk of some diseases. So for most of us, the goal should be to eat foods that quell inflammation, or at minimum, focus on foods that don’t instigate inflammation. This may be especially important in postmenopausal women who are already at risk of bone density loss and higher rates of bone fractures.
What foods should be included in an anti-inflammatory diet? Focus on plant-based proteins, fish, and whole grains, especially ancient grains, fruits, and vegetables. Certain herbs like turmeric (curcumin) are also anti-inflammatory. A day’s worth of “fight the inflammation” eating could look like this:
- Breakfast – Egg white and mixed vegetable omelet, thin slice of whole grain toast, and a piece of fruit
Snack– Hummus and cut up vegetables
Lunch – Large salad with beans and topping of seeds, small cup of Greek yogurt with berries
Dinner – Grilled fish and grilled vegetables topped with turmeric, small side of quinoa, piece of fruit
Beverages – Unsweetened green tea and water