You're never too young to start caring about healthy bones. Through young adulthood, building bone mass is key because women's bone mineral density can begin to decline as early as age 35—and by the time you reach menopause, that loss speeds up, dipping as much as 20 percent over the next five to seven years. Men's bone loss tends to start later, but that doesn't make it any less serious. (In fact, the average man's risk of an osteoporosis-related fracture after the age of 50 is greater than his risk of prostate cancer.) For both women and men, the sooner you take steps to slow that process and maintain the bone mass you have now—or even increase it—the better. Here's how to eat for healthy bones.
Eat More Protein
Pictured recipe: Peppery Barbecue-Glazed Shrimp with Vegetables & Orzo
"This nutrient acts as the glue in bones, holding together minerals like calcium, phosphorus and magnesium that keep them hard and strong," says Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., adjunct nutrition professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The best type of protein for bones—plant versus animal—has long been up for debate. However, an analysis of seven studies, which Wallace co-authored, found that they're equally good. Most important is getting enough. He recommends aiming for 0.36 gram of protein per pound of body weight and up to 0.56 gram for adults over age 50, For example, a 140-pound woman should get up to 78 grams of protein daily. To put that into perspective, 3 ounces of chicken breast contains 26 grams of protein, and 1 cup of beans has about 14 grams.
Strength training stimulates new bone development. Heavy lifting is still the gold standard for triggering this process, but you can get a similar benefit from doing lots of reps with light resistance, according to a study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. Lifting light three times a week for six months increased bone mineral density by as much as 8 percent. Pick a dumbbell that's 20 percent of the max weight you can lift (so, 4 pounds if you're capable of lifting 20). For each exercise, do as many reps as possible in 5-minute bursts over the course of an hour-long workout.
Use Olive Oil
This Mediterranean diet staple may be famous for helping your heart but it can support your skeleton as well. Consuming about 4 teaspoons of olive oil per day was associated with 4 percent higher total bone density on average compared to having none, according to Spanish researchers. Olive oil contains naturally occurring compounds called polyphenols that increase the activity of osteoblasts, cells that promote bone formation and maintenance.
Support Your Microbiome
Probiotics help populate your microbiome with good bacteria, and the perks don't stop at better digestion. Taking a daily probiotic reduced bone loss by about half after a year in women ages 75 to 80, according to Swedish researchers. The breakdown of bones appears to be accelerated by inflammation, so they suspect that the gut bugs' anti-inflammatory effects may stave off this loss. Ask your doctor about a supplement, and try eating foods rich in probiotics, like yogurt and kefir, which are also known to support bone health.