If you want to avoid one of America’s most crippling diseases, here are two pieces of advice that won’t be too hard to swallow: Don’t let yourself get too thin—and eat plenty of pizza!
Now, ordering up a pepperoni pizza with extra cheese has some major dietary liabilities, but the mozzarella presents one redeeming factor: As a source of calcium, it can help prevent osteoporosis, a bone-weakening disease that develops gradually and makes bones so fragile that they fracture under normal use.
The effects of the disease are evident most often in those who reach their 70s. They can actually shrink in height. Some may develop a “dowager’s hump”—the result of weakened, collapsed vertebrae—and may easily fracture bones, especially hip, spine and wrist bones.
You may coast through life and never contract the disease, or you may become one of 44 million Americans, for whom osteoporosis is a major public health threat (http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bone/Osteoporosis/default.asp). If you’d like to avoid becoming one of these statistics, you can make a few lifestyle changes now—long before you contract the disease.
The best time to prevent osteoporosis is when you’re 25 or younger, when bone development reaches its peak. Bones grow rapidly during the teen years, and bone density increases until about age 30. After age 35 or 40, men And women actually begin to lose part of their bones.
The idea is that the more bone you build early in life, the better you will be able to withstand bone loss later. But, don’t despair. Even if you are well over age 25, you can still slow bone loss, or even build bone.
Am I at risk?
Bones are made of hard ivory on the surface, but inside bones consist of living, spongy and pliable tissue. Their two main functions are to support the body and to store calcium. Bones continue to change throughout life, based on one’s age, gender, hormones, nutritional factors and physical activity.
Answer the following questions to find out if you’re at risk:
• Do you have a small, thin frame?
• Are you female?
• Are you Caucasian?
• Do you have a family history of osteoporosis?
• Are you a post-menopausal woman?
• Is your diet low in dairy products and other sources of calcium?
• Are you physically inactive?
• Do you smoke?
• Do you drink?
The more you answer “yes,” the higher your risk for developing osteoporosis.
Caucasians, Asians, thin and small-boned people are more likely to develop osteoporosis than African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Japanese-Americans.
Stop the slide toward osteoporosis
You can’t change your gender, race or bone structure, but you can lower your risks of suffering from osteoporosis.
Eat more calcium. Most Americans do not come close to their recommended daily calcium intake. The highest amounts of calcium are in milk (one quart of milk provides 1,200 milligrams), cheese, yogurt and other dairy foods; green leafy vegetables like broccoli; seafoods such as shellfish, canned salmon and sardines, and oysters; tofu, brazil nuts and almonds. Some orange juice, breads and breakfast cereals are also fortified with calcium.
Milk is ideal because it is rich in calcium and fortified with vitamin D. which the body needs so it can absorb calcium from food. We also get vitamin D from the sun. Those who live in climates with decreased winter sunlight often don’t receive adequate amounts of vitamin D unless they drink fortified milk. A drop in vitamin D increases parathyroid hormone secretions, which accelerates bone loss.
You can add 1,200 milligrams of calcium to your diet almost effortlessly. Prepare creamed soups with milk instead of water and you will add 300 mg per cup of nonfat milk. Add a slice of Swiss cheese to your sandwiches, salads and casseroles and add 273 mg per ounce. Spoon a cup of yogurt over fresh fruit to add 249 mg of calcium.
Parents usually see to it that their young children drink milk, but teens and 20-somethings substitute soft drinks and other beverages for milk. Unfortunately, this group actually has the highest calcium requirement. Girls and young women especially need to be careful about their calcium intake.
Your body absorbs calcium most efficiently through food, but if you simply don’t get enough calcium through the food you eat, consider calcium supplements. Studies suggest that calcium citrate malate is better absorbed than calcium carbonate, a popular form of the supplement. Don’t overdo taking supplements; too much calcium (more than 2,000 mg) may lead to kidney stones.
Exercise regularly. Bones respond to mechanical stress by retaining more calcium, becoming denser and stronger, less resistant to fracture.
Engage in exercises in which your legs support your body. Swimming does not increase bone mass, as the body does not bear its own weight. Bicycling doesn’t build bone as effectively as walking, jogging or climbing stairs. Good exercises include aerobics, dancing, tennis, racquetball, basketball, rowing, volleyball, weight training, cross-country skiing, and even sweeping, vacuuming and mowing the lawn.
Because the positive effects of exercise cannot be stored, it is important to exercise regularly throughout life. But if you’ve never been very active, you may still be able to reap bone-strengthening benefits by starting a doctor-approved exercise program.
Exercise programs have the added benefit of strengthening muscles and improving balance, further guarding against falls that result in broken bones.
Gain weight if you’re underweight. Check with your doctor or dietitian to find out what your best weight should be. Being underweight has been linked with a higher risk of osteoporosis.
Don’t smoke. Smoking can be toxic to your bones cells and may reduce the body’s estrogen levels and absorption of calcium.
Avoid caffeine. Some evidence suggests that consuming coffee, cola or other caffeine-containing beverages may be liked to bone loss.
Consider estrogen-replacement therapy. So far, there is no cure for osteoporosis, but estrogen-replacement therapy (ERT) can be effective in reducing bone loss when it is started early (soon after menopause). It can even rebuild bone if the trabecular bone architecture in the spine has not been destroyed, just thinned. However, the medical community disagrees how long ERT can be safely and effectively continued. If you are entering menopause, discuss with your doctor whether ERT is appropriate for you.
You may also choose to have your bone density measured before menopause. Then you have a standard with which to later compare and monitor bone loss after menopause, and determine if ERT may be indicated.
Treat your bones like the living tissue they are. If you enter into a lifetime regimen of exercise, calcium and vitamin D intake, you will take positive steps to prevent the disease.
The National Institutes of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases
National Resource Center (http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bone/Osteoporosis/default.asp);
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS), Osteoporosis Overview (http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Bone/Osteoporosis/default.asp)