How Fruits and Vegetables Protect Your Bones

green vegetablesBone health is a serious concern for all ages, but especially for the aging population where fractures can be life-threatening. Bone health is often thought of in terms of density, because how dense your bones are reflects how strong your bones are. Stronger bones are less likely to break in old age. Bone density peaks in a person’s early 30s and then starts to decline. How fast this decline happens varies based on health, diet, lifestyle and genetic factors. For example, menopause leads to an increased loss of bone density, so hitting it early means more bone loss than someone who hits it late. Lifting weights strengthens bones and leads to a slower loss of bone than in those who don’t lift weights.

How does diet influence our bones?

While diet has long been held to influence bone health, the information about what exactly is helpful has been unclear. Dairy was long said to improve bone health as a source of calcium, but recent studies have found that consuming dairy doesn’t seem to protect against bone fractures the way dairy proponents had long said it would. Fruits and vegetables haven’t often been thought of as important for bone health, but a new study indicates that they may actually be key players in protecting against some of the harmful effects our otherwise unhealthy Western diet has on our bones.

How is pH involved in bone health?

Our body carefully holds our blood within a tight acid/base balance. When a person consumes too many acidic compounds, the body balances that out with blood compounds that can soak up that acid from the blood to bring the pH back to normal. It also uses the kidneys to pee out some of the acidic compounds to bring the pH back up to a more alkaline level.

Bones serve as a reservoir of alkaline compounds that can also be used to balance out the acid in the blood. If the amount of acid overwhelms the blood buffer and kidneys, the body may break down bone to directly balance the acid with alkaline chemicals. While this seems short-sighted, a low pH can be deadly. The body sacrifices a bit of bone in the short term to make sure we’re alive in the future. If our diet corrects, then the bone is built back up and no harm is done.

But if our diet doesn’t correct and acid continues to flow into the body, bone continues to be sacrificed for the sake of keeping our blood at the right pH. A group of researchers who published a study this week wondered if the potassium alkaline compounds in fruits and vegetables might help combat some of that acid, leading to less bone breakdown and improved bone health later in life.

What did the researchers find?

To study the impact of alkaline compounds in the diet on bone health, the team gathered data from a wide variety of studies that looked at how alkaline compounds potassium citrate and potassium bicarbonate affected bone health compared to placebo. They used markers of bone breakdown in the blood and urine as well as direct studies of bone density to indicate bone health was affected by these compounds. While some of the results were mixed, most studies showed that increasing potassium citrate or potassium bicarbonate in the diet, either through supplements or through fruits and vegetables in the diet, decreased the apparent breakdown of bone.

What does this mean for you?

Replacing common sources of dietary acids, like meat or grains, with more fruits and vegetables could help keep your bones strong and healthy as you age and potentially prevent osteoporosis.