Food & drink

Nutrition: It takes more than milk to build strong, healthy bones

Milk, with its high calcium content, can help build healthy bones, but important nutrients are found in other foods
Jane McClenaghan

WE don't really think too much about our skeleton unless we break a bone.

We tend to think our bones are static and once they are formed, that's it, job done. In fact, bone is a living tissue that is constantly being renewed and rebuilt.

There are two different types of bone cells that do this job: osteoclasts break down old bone, and osteoblasts rebuild new bone.

During childhood and adolescence, our bodies are doing a good job of building new bone, increasing bone density and strength. By the time we get to our mid to late twenties, we have reached our maximum bone strength, which is called peak bone mass.

As we get a little older, the ageing process leads to an increase in the breaking down of bone. This means we start to lose bone density and strength, making bones more susceptible to fractures.

But it's not all bad news. What you eat, drink, how you move and look after yourself can have a positive bearing on your bone health throughout your life.


As we age, our risk of osteoporosis increases. Also known as 'brittle bone disease', osteoporosis tends to affect women more than men, and is often discovered after women go through menopause, as the changes in hormone levels increase the risk of bone fractures. This is because osteoclasts and osteoblasts are influenced by oestrogen and progesterone.

Although not as common, men can also be affected by osteoporosis. This is often secondary to another health problem, thanks to decreased testosterone.

Are you at risk?

There is a genetic link to osteoporosis, so a family history can increase your risk of developing the condition. Other risk factors include:

  • Certain medications
  • Inflammatory conditions, hormone-related conditions, or malabsorption problems
  • A family history of osteoporosis
  • Being underweight
  • Not exercising regularly
  • Smoking and alcohol


Many of us remember being force-fed milk as a child to help build strong and healthy bones, with the emphasis on milk's high calcium content. While dairy products are an important source of calcium, our bones need a wide range of nutrients to help keep them healthy, and build their strength.

Although calcium is the most prevalent mineral in bone, osteoporosis is much more than a lack of dietary calcium. Pick up a good quality bone supplement, and you are likely to find these key nutrients listed in the ingredients list.

Calcium is a key building block for healthy bones. Good sources include dark leafy greens (kale, rocket, watercress), almonds, cheese, yoghurt, broccoli, chia seeds, sesame and tahini, sardines and canned salmon (because of their edible bones), edamame beans and tofu.

Magnesium – even a mild magnesium deficiency is thought to be a risk factor in the development of the condition.We find magnesium in dark chocolate, avocados, almonds, legumes, tofu, seeds, wholegrains and leafy greens

Phosphorus is a key building material for bone. Foods rich in phosphorus include pork, cod, salmon and tuna.

Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin aids the absorption of calcium into bones. You'll find vitamin D in oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and fresh tuna, egg yolks, liver and cheese. That said, it's hard to get a decent dose from food, and it's worth getting your vitamin D tested so you can supplement adequately. Check out

Boron helps vitamin D and calcium work together.

Vitamin C makes collagen matrix to help give strength to bone and muscles. The best food source of collagen is bone broth. Vitamin C also helps to support the production of collagen, and you'll find vitamin C in all kinds of fruit and veg, including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, red pepper, kiwi, strawberries and citrus fruit like oranges.

Zinc helps make new bone cells. Good sources of zinc include beef, prawns, spinach, flaxseeds, oysters and pumpkin seeds. Vitamin K2 helps prevent the loss of calcium from bones. Found in small amounts in liver, eggs and meat and fermented foods like cheese and sauerkraut.


Some habits can have a detrimental effect on bone density.

  • Eating too much refined sugar
  • Drinking too much coffee, alcohol and fizzy drinks
  • A very high protein diet
  • Not eating enough fruit and veg
  • Very low calorie diets

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