Dairy for strong bones? 2 essential nutrients for bone and joint health

omega-3 and fatty acids

Caring for your bones and joints is essential to maintain your mobility and prevent injury. We spoke to two dietary experts from UChicago Medicine Ingalls Memorial Hospital about how nutrition plays a role in making bones strong and what foods to eat to keep them that way.

According to registered dietitian Mary Condon and dietetic intern Sarah Elster, there are two main nutrients you can obtain through food that play the biggest role in bone and joint health: calcium and vitamin D.


About 99% of calcium is stored in bones, serving as a building block for bone health. It is recommended that adults consume about 1000 milligrams of calcium per day.

“Your body does a great job of regulating calcium on its own for bone breakdown and building,” Elster said.

Calcium-rich foods include dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt; green leafy vegetables including kale and broccoli; tofu; white beans and fish such as salmon and sardines. Milk is also an excellent source of calcium and is very healthy for bones, Condon said. One cup of milk contains about 300 milligrams of calcium.

“As we age, it is common to lose an enzyme called lactase that helps break down sugar in milk, called lactose. Lactose intolerance is a very common problem,” she said. “If you are lactose intolerant, then it’s important to use alternatives, but if you can tolerate milk, three servings of low-fat dairy a day is a great way to reach the daily calcium requirement.”

Elster said one 8-ounce cup of some nut milks, like almond or cashew milk, will contain between 30% and 40% of your daily calcium value. “It’s a great source of calcium if you’re lactose intolerant or vegan. But for people who don’t eat dairy, it’s very important to get calcium from other sources like kale and broccoli.”

MyPlate, a nutrition guideline published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recommends between 2 and 3 cups of dairy each day, depending on the person. Dairy milk is often a readily available and affordable way to get your calcium.

Despite online debates about the health impacts of dairy, Elster said there is no real scientific evidence to show that dairy has any negative effects in the general population. Also, the International Osteoporosis Foundation says the idea that overconsumption of calcium leads to more bone fractures is a myth.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential in helping the body absorb and use calcium. Condon said there are not many food sources that contain vitamin D. The most important are salmon, dark colored mushrooms, eggs and enriched milk products, in addition to sun exposure. Many people in the Midwest or regions with less sunlight are vitamin D deficient. A vitamin D deficiency can affect bone health, as well as mood and energy.

Multivitamins that contain calcium and vitamin D can be a part of a healthy diet, but Elster said most dietitians and physicians have a “food-first” mentality. “We really don’t see that multivitamins are needed unless there is an actual deficiency or a physician recommends them. Your best option is to add nutrients from food sources,” she said.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Another nutrient that plays a role in bone and joint health is omega-3 fatty acids. Condon said omega-3 fatty acids are important to prevent joint injuries and have anti-inflammatory properties. In a study published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition, people who were given fish oil supplements experienced less joint pain and swelling than those who were not. Condon said eating two servings of fatty fish a week, like salmon and tuna, can help joints function better.

Who is at risk for poor bone and joint health?

People who are the most at risk for poor bone and joint health include the elderly, especially elderly women who are most at risk of developing osteoporosis and arthritis. Being overweight or obese can also add stress on bones and joints. Elster said pregnant and lactating women also need a higher amount of calcium and vitamin D than normally recommended.

Both Condon and Elster said it’s important to consult your primary care physician or a registered dietitian before modifying your diet to ensure you’re doing what’s best for your bone and joint health.