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August 9, 2021


Lindsay Delk, RDN
Vitamin D And Healthy Bones

Fact Checked By Lindsay Delk, RDN
 August 9, 2021

Healthy Bones

You may not realize how many roles bones play in your body.

Of course, they provide structure for your body, but they also protect your organs, such as your skull protecting your brain and your rib cage protecting your heart and lungs.

They also store calcium and phosphorus and support your muscles, tendons, and ligaments to help your body move.

Bones are Living Things

Maintaining healthy bones is important from infancy through late adulthood.

Until around age 30, your bone mass increases as you gain new bone faster than you break down old bone.

Most people reach their peak bone mass around age 30.

Then, you slowly break down bone faster than you make new bone. The key is slowing down this process as much as possible by giving your bones what they need to be healthy.


What Your Body Needs for Healthy Bones

A healthy lifestyle that includes weight-bearing exercise and a diet rich in several key nutrients plays a critical role in maintaining healthy bones.

  • Physical Activity – Physical activity, especially weight-bearing activity, such as walking, jogging, and lifting weights, helps to strengthen your bones.
    Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity each day.
  • Calcium – About 99% of the calcium in your body is in your bones. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for calcium is 1,000 mg per day for all adults up to age 50 and men up to age 70 (1), (2).
    Women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 70 need 1,200 mg per day.
    Good sources of calcium are milk, yogurt, cheese, green leafy vegetables (collard greens, turnip greens, and kale), tofu, and calcium-fortified juices.
    Ask your doctor about a calcium supplement if you may not be meeting your recommended amount.
  • Vitamin D – Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium.
    If you don’t get enough vitamin D, you increase your risk of bone loss and broken bones.
    Adults under the age of 50 need 600–800 IUs (15–20 mcg) per day, and adults over the age of 50 need 800–1000 IUs (20–25 mcg) per day. However, many health professionals think adults need much higher amounts. We will discuss vitamin D in-depth in the rest of this article (3), (4).
  • Vitamin K – Getting enough vitamin K increases bone density and decreases your risk for bone fractures (broken bones).
    Adult men should try to get 120 mcg per day and women should try to get 90 mcg per day (5), (6).
    Foods high in vitamin K include green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, and lettuce), broccoli, blueberries, eggs, meat, cheese, eggs, soybeans, and vegetable oils.
  • Magnesium – 60% of your body’s magnesium is stored in your bones. Getting enough magnesium through foods or supplements improves your bone health (7).
    The RDA for magnesium is 400–420 mg for men and 310–320 mg for women. Foods high in magnesium include nuts, seeds, spinach, dry beans, and whole grains (8).
    Many other nutrients, such as zinc, boron, manganese, copper, silicon, iron, and selenium also play roles in bone health (9).

Bone Diseases Related to Vitamin D

  • Osteopenia – Osteopenia is when your bones are weak but not yet to the point of osteoporosis.
    You can develop osteopenia if your body doesn’t have enough calcium and vitamin D.
    This disease doesn’t have any symptoms, so you can’t find out if you have it unless you have a bone mineral density test. Osteopenia is a risk factor for osteoporosis.
  • Osteoporosis – Osteoporosis develops when your bones become weak and are more likely to break.
    Like osteopenia, you are more likely to have osteoporosis if your body doesn’t have enough calcium and vitamin D. It can lead to broken bones, loss of height, stooped posture, and pain.
  • Osteomalacia – Osteomalacia is the softening and weakening of bones in adults, usually because of vitamin D deficiency. Symptoms of osteomalacia might include bone pain and muscle weakness (10).
  • Rickets – Rickets is the softening and weakening of bones in children, usually because of vitamin D deficiency. Because the bones are soft and weak while the child is growing, children with rickets will sometimes have bowed legs or knock-knees (11).

How Do You Know If You Have a Vitamin D Deficiency?

Vitamin D deficiency is very common.

Up to 42% of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency. 82% of black Americans and 69% of Hispanic Americans are deficient (12), (13), (14).

The only way to know if you have a vitamin D deficiency is to measure your vitamin D level with a blood test.

Your vitamin D blood level should be at least 30 ng/ml (75 nmol/l) to protect against osteopenia, osteoporosis, and other bone diseases (15).

Ways to Get Vitamin D

There are three ways to get vitamin D: from the sun, from foods, or from a supplement.

From The Sun

Vitamin D is made in your skin from direct sunlight.

Some reasons why people may not be able to make enough vitamin D in their skin include:

  • Age – Aging reduces vitamin D production in the skin (16).
  • Sunscreen – Sunscreen blocks the ability of the skin to make vitamin D.
  • Darker skin – Melanin decreases the amount of vitamin D the skin makes.
  • Location – It’s harder to get enough UV rays from the sun if you live far north or far south of the equator.
  • Season – Your level of vitamin D usually goes down during the winter months because you are spending less time outside in the direct sunlight and wearing clothes that cover more of your skin.
  • Pollution – Living in an area with smog or polluted air blocks sunlight.

From Foods

A few foods have a good amount of vitamin D in them, such as fish liver oil, fatty fish, beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, and vitamin D-fortified milk, breakfast cereals, and orange juice.

But many people will not be able to get enough vitamin D from their diet alone for several reasons:

  • Not eating high-vitamin D foods
  • Following a vegan or vegetarian diet
  • Following a very low-calorie or restrictive diet
  • Having less access to food
  • Having a poor appetite
  • Having a condition that causes poor absorption

From a Supplement

Almost 42% of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency. If you think you may not be getting enough vitamin D, talk to your doctor about checking your vitamin D level and/or taking a vitamin D supplement (17).