The Dynamic Duo of Bone Health: Calcium & Vitamin D

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Why couldn’t the skeleton laugh? He broke his funny bone!

Why didn’t the skeleton go to the party? He had no body to go with him!

I could tell skeleton jokes all day, but osteoporosis is no jokeOsteoporosis is a bone disease that affects more than 53 million people in the United States.  When you have osteoporosis, your bones are thinned, weakened and can break easily. Osteoporosis can develop at any age, but is most common among older adults, women in particular.  In honor of National Osteoporosis Month, we want to celebrate the Batman & Robin of bone health: calcium and vitamin D!

The biggest message being conveyed to prevent osteoporosis is to get more calcium, and this is a wonderful message. Research shows that adequate calcium intake can increase bone mineral density long-term. However, this message about calcium is missing a major piece of the bone health puzzle: If you want to maximize your calcium absorption, you need vitamin D.

When calcium goes into the body through your food, it is in an inactive form.  In order to convert calcium to its active form, called calcitriol, your body needs vitamin D.  This means that even if you are eating plenty of calcium, your body cannot use it unless you are also getting vitamin D.  If you are not absorbing enough calcium, your body must take calcium from your bones, which can weaken them and can lead to osteoporosis.

Okay, so how can we get this perfect pair into our diet, and how much do we need?


The amount of calcium you need changes throughout your lifetime and increases as you get older. The average adult between the ages of 19 and 50 should aim for 1,200 mg of calcium per day. Luckily for us, calcium is found in many healthy and delicious foods.

Dairy products such as milk and yogurt are a great source of calcium, and the dairy group is the biggest contributor to calcium consumption in the United States.  If you are lactose-intolerant, there are many vegetables such as kale and broccoli that can provide calcium. Additionally, many grains and non-dairy milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D to help you get your daily dose.

Vitamin D: Three Ways

The average adult should aim for 600 IU, or 15 micrograms, of vitamin D a day.  Vitamin D can sometimes be tricky because few foods in nature contain it.  Fortunately, there are three ways to get this calcium sidekick:

1. Food

There is some vitamin D in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, as well as in fish oils. Small amounts can also be found in cheese and egg yolks. Though there are not many food sources found in nature, we can look to fortified foods as a source of vitamin D. Almost all milk the U.S. is fortified with 100 IU per cup, or one-sixth of your recommended intake for the day. Some breakfast cereals, orange juice, and yogurt also may be fortified with vitamin D.

2. Sunshine

UV light that comes from the sun helps your skin create vitamin D that is usable in your body.  Now you can tell your boss you need the day off at the beach, just for your bone health! Don’t go crazy though, It is still important to limit unprotected exposure to the sun as much as possible and always wear sunscreen to protect from skin cancer.  The amount of vitamin D you get from the sun can vary greatly depending on the weather, where you live, and how often you are outside.

3. Supplements

Some groups of people are at higher risk for vitamin D deficiency and may need a supplement to meet their daily needs. These groups include breastfed infants, older adults, those with limited sun exposure or dark skin, or those with fat malabsorption. If you fall into one of these categories, talk to your doctor to determine whether you need to supplement your diet to meet your needs of vitamin D.

Calcium and vitamin D go together like Bert & Ernie, peanut butter & jelly, or Thelma & Louise, but they are not the only bone-health champions. For more tips on bone health, check out our previous article that includes a Top 10 List for Maximizing Skeletal Health .