Whole foods are the best way to get the vitamins and minerals you need for strong bones. The three essential bone building vitamins and minerals are calcium, vitamin D3 and magnesium. Together, they compose a trio that works in conjunction with one another. In addition, we also benefit from phosphorus, vitamin K2, and trace minerals.
How each type of food processed by the body is the next thing to consider. Foods are either acidic or alkaline. A slight few, such as water, are neutral. Our bodies prefer neutral, leaning toward alkaline in order to maintain balance. When a food is ingested that is acidic, the bones send out stored calcium in order to reverse it. Understanding this process is vital because it explains how we can get the most from our diets (1).
Lastly, we should take a look at how bone building foods can be broken down into healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and protein. The great thing about food, besides the taste, is that its nutrient content is often diverse; you get a little of this, a lot of that — the list goes on. What foods contain good amounts of each bone building mineral and when are the optimal times to eat them?
Strong Bones Food
Calcium comes from a variety of sources, both plant and animal. The most often talked about category of food is dairy, but it’s not always the best source because of its acidifying effects. Most sources recommend to get at least 1,000-1,500 mg per day.
Cow’s milk (and most dairy) contains a high amount of calcium (4 oz/ 130mg), but upon entering the body, the process of releasing stored calcium to reverse the acid starts to occur. The potential for the ingested calcium to be taken in is counteracted by the acid response from our bones.
There are lots of options for calcium rich foods which aren’t acidic. Green leafy vegetables are good choices because they’re also alkalizing so they’re beneficial for your gut as well. Collard greens contain 260 mg per cup. Mustard greens have 165 mg and kale contains 94 mg. Due to their low protein and carbohydrate content, they can be consumed at any time of the day with no negative effects.
As far as protein, sardines are good at 350 mg per 3.75 ounce can. Canned salmon is also high at 232 mg per half can. Both of these fish are canned, and just like humans, the calcium is in their bones, which is why they’re on the list. Filet won’t rank nearly as high. Their high protein and calcium content make them great for after a workout, where exercise induced stress has been inflicted (2).
Healthy fats are probably the easiest for us to work into our diets (3). Almonds and almond butter are a good source. A cup contains 25% RDV and it also has protein. Tahini is made from ground sesame seeds and it’s another delicious option. A tablespoon has only 6%, but you’ll see it contains 10% RDV of phosphorus, which is also on the list.
Eating Vitamin D3
Vitamin D3 is needed for proper calcium absorption in the gut and it also helps with the mineralization of new bone cells. Vitamin D3 is most easily obtained from sunlight, where it’s absorbed and synthesized through the skin. It can be somewhat tricky to get from food, and in the winter months, most people are apt to find themselves prone to deficiencies. It’s recommended to get upwards of 1,000 IU.
The good news, however, is that most of its food sources are easy to work into our diets. By far one of the highest values you can eat are mushrooms. A cup of most types of mushrooms contain between 600-750 IU. This is close to the entire day’s value (4).
Vitamin D3 protein sources are mostly derived from animals. Oily fish are the easiest route. 3 oz of salmon has 447 IUs and 3 oz of swordfish has 556 IUs. They’re best after workouts or as part of larger meals. The versatile chicken egg, specifically the yolks (41 IUs) is another option. They contain lesser quantities than mushrooms and fatty fish, but it goes without saying that eggs are great at any time of day (4).
A high quality supplement, such as PurePharma D3, can help you to cover your bases when diet or sunny weather falls short.
Magnesium is essential for bones because D3 needs magnesium in order to be properly absorbed. If D3 isn’t properly activated, then whatever calcium you ingest will fall short of being properly absorbed into the body. Half of our body’s supply is stored in our bones (5).
It’s a relativity easy nutrient to get from food. Many of the foods rich in magnesium overlap with those rich in calcium, mostly because of how they are grown or raised. For example, dark leafy greens are plentiful in minerals because they’re grown in soil that requires magnesium. One cup of cooked spinach provides 157mg or 40% of the DV. Other greens include kale at 19% and collard greens at 13%. Fruit usually has some magnesium. A banana has roughly 33% and 1 cup of cactus pears also has the same. An avocado has 15% or 58 mg (10).
Protein sources include fatty fish, such as mackerel. A 3 oz piece provides 82 mg or 21%, while 3 oz of tuna provides 14%. Here again, almonds can pack a good amount: ½ cup provides 48% which is a pretty easy standard to meet (5). Pumpkin seeds are an easy switch from almonds. Eat ½ cup of pumpkin seeds, and you’ll get an impressive 81% (8).
Magnesium is also found in dark chocolate and there’s a good reason why we crave it when we’re stressed. Our bodies pump the stress response hormone, cortisol and magnesium helps to regulate it. Opt for one with at least 80% cacao, and you’ll get 95 mg (24%) in 20 grams or 1 square (6). Easy enough.
Phosphorus helps the gut to absorb calcium, and it balances vitamin D3, which also helps in calcium absorption. Phosphorus also plays a role in the regulation of ATP which helps with cell energy production.
Phosphorus is common in carbonated beverages, where it’s injected for an extra amount of unnatural fizz, but soda aside, we can discuss healthier options; and there are quite a few.
Fatty fish, such as salmon (3 oz 315 mg, 32%) and tuna (3 oz, 28%) are easy, protein filled, accessible choices. Shellfish contain a good amount too. 3 oz of shrimp has 26%, and 3 oz of clams has 29% (5).
Meat, including beef and pork, both contain phosphorus. It’s important to buy grass-fed and pastured when you can to maximize the benefits. 3 oz of beef has 243 mg or 24%, and 3 oz of pork has 264 mg or 26%. Eat these post workout to maximize gains.
Healthy fats include a lot of different types of seeds and nuts. The reason for this is that seeds require phosphorus during their germination phase. Pumpkin seeds have 345mg or (35% DV) per ½ cup. Brazil nuts contain 203mg or (20% DV). Tahini, as mentioned earlier, has 100mg per tablespoon (8).
Eating Vitamin K2
K2 is not a vitamin we hear about frequently, but it’s extremely important for our bones, as well as other various blood related processes. It aids in clotting and it helps to prevent calcium from depositing inside the arteries.
K2 is synthesized from K1 and it’s found in animal products. Here, grass-fed is key. Grass-fed butter, butter oil and ghee contain K2. Beef liver is also high. 2 ounces has about 10 mcg. Bone marrow has roughly 4x the amount as beef liver. The exact amounts from food are hard to pin down because the levels change drastically in accordance with the animal’s environment (9). “Natto” which is a Japanese fermented soybean is thought to contain the highest amount of any food, due to the nature of the processing (11).
It’s safe to assume though that organ meats, butter, chicken breast, and egg yolks contain K2, although the exact amounts haven’t been determined.
Eating Trace Minerals
Trace minerals are minerals in the body needs in small amounts. Requirements haven’t been set by the FDA guidelines, so we need to gauge each mineral individually, based on our own needs. They contribute to secondary processes which are important for bone health but again, the levels haven’t been determined. Examples include iodine, copper, manganese, iron and zinc. They can often be found in organ meats. Iodine is in seafood and seaweed. Although the levels we need of these minerals aren’t as high as the others, it’s important to maintain a balanced diet and to make an effort to include them.
Varying types and amounts of trace minerals can often be found in fruits and vegetables, depending on how the produce was grown. For example, an avocado contains 300 mcg of copper, which is 1/3 RDV.
It’s important to include proper nutrition as the cornerstone towards improving our physical capacity and for continually bettering ourselves as athletes. Age, stress, and genetics all play a role in determining the health of our bones, but there are inclusions to our diets that we can make to recover and develop.
The essential vitamins and nutrients we need are best absorbed through food, and if we eat the right food, and include the proper training, we can be rest assured that our bodies and our bones will reward us with progress and health.
1. Gastric Acid, Calcium Absorption, and Their Impact on Bone Health. January 2013.
2.18 Suprising Dairy Free Sources of Calcium. The Greatist. April 2014.
4. The World’s Healthiest Foods: Magnesium. September 2015.
5. How to Restore Magnesium. November 2012.
6. Twelve Benefits of Magnesium. Poliquin Group. August 2011.
7. Nature and Nurture: The Importance of Seed Phosphorus Content. August 2012.
8. Nut and Seed Products: Nutritional Content. September 2015.
10. Avocado Minerals. July 2008.
11. Why Vitamin K2 is Important and How to Get It. March 2015.