Planning to eat right for healthier bones? Calcium is probably the nutrient you think of first. But vitamin D is just as important for keeping bones strong and preventing the bone disease osteoporosis.
Vitamin D helps your intestines absorb calcium from the food you eat. Getting enough of both nutrients is an important part of making sure your bones are dense and strong.
Unlike calcium, which you only get through food, your body makes vitamin D when sunlight hits your skin. Active people who live in sunny regions can get at least some of what they need from spending time outdoors every day. But in less temperate areas such as Minnesota, Michigan, and New York, the skin makes less vitamin D in the winter months, especially for older adults.
The amount your skin makes depends on where you live, how light or dark your skin is, and the time of day you’re outside. It could be about 15 minutes for a very fair-skinned person and an hour or two for someone with darker skin. But you have to be careful — too much time in the sun raises your chance of having skin cancer. Even though sunlight is a key part of your body’s vitamin D production, it’s best to protect your skin with clothing and sunscreen if you’ll be outside for more than a few minutes.
How else can you get vitamin D? A few foods have it, such as:
- Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, and mackerel
- Beef liver, cheese, and egg yolks
- Foods with added vitamin D, such as milk, orange juice, and cereal
But it’s hard to get the amount you need from food alone. Experts recommend 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day for adults up to age 70, and 800 IU for people 71 and older. If you’re not getting enough from sunlight and food, you may need to take a supplement.
You can get vitamin D in multivitamins and also in combination with a calcium supplement, as well as on its own. Keep in mind, though, that many diet supplements have vitamin D, so before you take another one, check the labels and let your doctor know what you’re taking. Getting too much vitamin D, especially above 4,000 IU per day, can be dangerous.
If you already have osteoporosis, keep in mind that vitamin D and calcium alone are not enough to treat the disease. You’ll need to take them along with other medications your doctor prescribes.