You might think of bone and joint health as something older adults have to contend with as they age, but in reality, childhood and adolescence is the time to lay the foundation for bone and joint health. In fact, the National Institutes of Health points out that “up to 90 percent of peak bone mass is acquired by age 18 in girls and by age 20 in boys.”
Fortunately, bone and joint health can be supported by food choices. Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and the owner of Elite Nutrition and Performance, is sharing how to eat for bone and joint health.
Why does eating for bone health matter for young athletes in particular?
“Anytime that a young athlete is doing any type of exercise, that puts stress on their bones and joints. This is especially true of sports with a lot of repetitive movements,” says Ziesmer. “And that includes most sports young athletes are doing, since even sports that aren’t super repetitive often will have repetitive drills in practice. That repetition, especially when it’s high impact things like jumping, puts a lot more stress on their bones. Injury is obviously a concern, so we want to help our athletes proactively prevent that.”
You probably remember from high school health class that calcium is the mineral necessary for growing strong bones. Calcium provides structure and strength to your bones. “Making sure young athletes eat enough calcium now is so important for them later,” Ziesmer says. “As early as our 30s, we start slowly losing bone density. So, we want to make sure that athletes are stocking up on calcium when they’re young.”
She recommends aiming for roughly 1500 to 2000 milligrams per day. Dairy is the obvious source of calcium: milk, Greek yogurt, regular yogurt, and kiefer are all great sources. But you can look beyond dairy too, including leafy greens, broccoli, and fish with the little bones in them (sardines or canned salmon with bone in).
2. Vitamin D
What you may not remember from high school health class is that without enough vitamin D, calcium can’t be absorbed properly. And this is tricky, since vitamin D is almost impossible to get from food alone—it requires exposure to sunlight (or doctor-recommended supplementation).
Ziesmer suggests getting vitamin D levels checked regularly because many young athletes end up deficient in this vitamin since outdoor exposure is limited during school hours and many northern climates lack the opportunity for sun exposure. “Vitamin D is an important hormone that controls so many things in our body, including bone health,” she says. “The best source is from the sun, so try spending 30 minutes a day outside during prime sun hours.” You can also get small amounts from foods, including egg yolks, sockeye salmon, and shiitake mushrooms, as well as dairy and other foods like orange juice that are fortified with vitamin D. Before you consider adding a vitamin D supplement, make sure you check with a doctor.