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Bishop's Stortford Independent Diet Talk columnist Alex Ballard discusses the importance of bone health in time for National Osteoporosis Month

Alex Ballard, who lives in Bishop's Stortford and works as a specialist dietician in West Essex, writes about how to take small steps towards a healthier lifestyle...

As we welcome back May, dust off last year's flip flops and uncover barbecues, we also enter into National Osteoporosis Month. With every adult human body housing 206 precious bones, it's important that we understand how to protect, support and nourish every single one from our head to our toes.

Osteoporosis is a condition where bones become thin and fragile, leading to them losing strength and increasing their vulnerability. Although bones start to become more delicate from our mid-30s, do not be conned into believing osteoporosis is a natural or inevitable part of ageing.

Some individuals will unfortunately pull the short straw and face a higher risk, for example post-menopausal women, people with particular medical conditions (such as coeliac and inflammatory bowel disease) or the longer term use of steroids. However, the following skeleton-savvy advice is helpful for all adults to build, preserve or improve bone strength.

The first nutrient we typically associate with this is calcium, which ultimately acts like super glue filler for our bones. Milk is a well-known source and, contrary to popular belief, whether you have the red, green or blue top scribbled on your shopping list, the calcium content is very similar.

If tainted memories of primary school milk cartons has put you off for life, other calcium-rich dietary sources include yogurt, cheese, milky puddings, fish with edible bones (such as pilchards, sardines and tinned salmon), whitebait, scampi, baked beans, oranges, figs, broccoli, spinach and calcium-enriched products (such as tofu, breads and cereals). If you opt for milk alternatives, be sure to select fortified options as, unfortunately, organic or homemade versions will not contain extra calcium.

Calcium, vitamin D, protein, fruits, vegetables and exercise are all important pieces to the bone health jigsaw
Calcium, vitamin D, protein, fruits, vegetables and exercise are all important pieces to the bone health jigsaw

Soya products, like milk, tofu and soya or edamame beans, also contain natural oestrogens which can help calcium absorption after the menopause.

Ticking off calcium is the first step towards healthier bones. However, even with an abundance of this mineral, your body is unable to transport it to the desired destination without sufficient levels of vitamin D. Although oily fish, egg yolks, milk and fortified products are sources, vitamin D is ultimately the sunshine vitamin.

We should therefore all try to expose our bare arms and face to the sun for 15 minutes two to three times per week during summer months to stock up our stores (make sure to use sunscreen before getting a red tinge).

Unfortunately, in autumn and winter, the UK is not blessed with beautiful rays and consequently we cannot easily meet vitamin D requirements. During this time, everyone over the age of one should consider taking a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D. Anyone at a high risk of deficiency may need a supplement all year around, for example individuals with darker skin tones, limited sun exposure (including those self-isolating inside), pregnant and breastfeeding women and adults over the age of 65.

There are also interlocking networks of protein fibres running through our bones. Consuming protein-containing foods two to three times per day will keep these connections strong and aid any necessary repair work. Dietary sources of protein include meat, fish, egg, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, tofu and vegetarian alternatives.

As with most aspects of health, filling up our plates, bowls and side dishes with a multi-coloured array of various fruits and vegetables will also be beneficial. Keep that five-a-day message in mind and whether you can get your hands on tinned, frozen, fresh or dried, it will all add up.

Drinking large amounts of alcohol can increase the risk of osteoporosis. Try to cut back by alternating soft and alcoholic beverages, using smaller measures, dinkier glasses, lower-strength options and introducing alcohol-free days. The good news is that a small amount of your chosen tipple may also be protective (there's always a silver lining); just stick within the recommended guidelines of a maximum of 14 units per week.

The message of 'use it or lose it' also applies here. Daily weight-bearing exercise is key for keeping bones Popeye strong. Moving your body does not need to cause dread, stretch budgets or involve uncomfortable, skin-tight attire. Exercise can be anything from gardening, cleaning and using stairs, to cycling, walking and chair-based exercises.

With lockdown restrictions, the public have been seeking out creative ways to get in their daily movement, such as street Zumba sessions, morning PE classes with Joe Wicks and fitness apps.

Being underweight and smoking are also risk factors for osteoporosis. If you would like further advice regarding these, supplementation or anything else listed above, please speak to your GP surgery.

You can follow Alex on Instagram @alextalksdiet.

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