Some researchers believe that natural oestrogens found in many plant foods, particularly beans and pulses, could protect against osteoporosis, heart disease and breast cancer.
Certainly, the incidence of these diseases is much lower in Japan where oestrogen-containing soya bean products, such as tofu, are an essential part of the diet.
Calcium is necessary to ensure bones develop properly and remain strong, so a healthy diet with adequate calcium is essential to good health. Periods of growth obviously increase the relative demands for calcium, so teenagers and pregnant women need greater amounts. Dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, are the best sources of calcium, which is readily absorbed into the blood stream. Unfortunately, the current fashion for dieting has meant that many women cut out dairy products as they also contain high levels of fat. The answer is to continue eating dairy products but switch to low fat alternatives – skimmed milk actually contains slightly more calcium than full cream milk. Sardines are also excellent as they contain very fine bones, full of calcium, which are softened during the canning process.
Dietary intake of vitamin D has declined over the years and may be linked to increasing fracture rates as this vitamin is necessary to aid calcium absorption. Fatty fish, such as halibut and mackerel, are rich sources of vitamin D; studies suggest that two meals of fatty fish a week can reduce the fracture risk by up to 20 per cent.
Supplementing your diet
Calcium supplements are a useful addition to a poor diet, particularly in early life when bones are developing. There is limited evidence that supplements in later life reduce the risk of fractures. However, many women taking calcium supplements also actively prevent osteoporosis by other means so the true effect of calcium alone remains unclear.
Vitamin D is also available as supplements. Do not overdo it – it is unwise to take more than 2,000 mg of calcium or 500 international units of vitamin D each day, as too much can increase the risk of kidney stones. Be particularly careful if your fluid intake is low, or you are confined to bed for any reason. If in doubt, speak to your doctor.
Cut down on alcohol
It is sensible to cut down on alcohol as heavy drinking increases the risk of osteoporosis and heart disease in addition to its effects on general health. The density of hip bone is reduced by up to 12 per cent in women in their late 40s who have more than two alcoholic drinks daily, so try to keep within the current recommended limits of 14 units a week for women, 21 for men. One unit is equivalent to a glass of wine, a single measure of spirits, or half a pint of beer.
Smoking increases the risk of heart disease, fractures and cancers. Women who smoke have an earlier menopause by one or two years than non-smokers.