As a dietitian, protecting bones is always part of my nutrition strategy: you’ve only got one skeleton…and it has to last a lifetime! Since today is World Osteoporosis Day, I thought I would touch on a topic not often discussed when it comes to bone health: inflammation.

First, we need to understand how bones are build and maintained. You have osteoblast cells which build bone tissue and osteoclast cells which break the bone tissue down. These cells are active every single day of your life – bone is not static; it is a living tissue. Bone loss occurs when osteoclasts operate faster than osteoblasts. For the first three decades of our lives, osteoblasts can easily outpace the osteoclasts but as we get older, we have to work to keep bone breakdown as slow as we can. We take our calcium so that osteoclasts don’t need to rob calcium from our bones to keep our body running smoothly. And we take vitamin D so that calcium reaches our circulation. But what we might not think about as we pop these pills is the effect that our Western-style high fat, high sugar, low plant diet has on our bones.

Eating our typical diets promotes chronic inflammation in the body, which is a leading risk factor for almost all chronic diseases…including osteoporosis. And understanding how inflammation affects your bones might help us better understand why a continent that loves dairy so much might still have trouble with their bones. Because it isn’t just about calcium. Activity levels play a role…as does our metabolic state, namely inflammation.

So how does inflammation lead to bone loss? The connection is two-fold: there is a deep connection between the macrophage cells abundant in inflammation and osteoclast cells that break down bone on a daily basis. There is also a connecting between the inflammatory cytokines that course throughout an inflamed body and activation of those osteoclast cells.

Inflammation recruits lots of immune cells called macrophages through the activity of a molecule called M-CSF. Unfortunately, M-CSF ALSO increases production of osteoclasts that breakdown bone as both cell types are found in the same home: bone marrow. But without activation, those cells still wouldn’t start munching on your bones for breakfast. Here, inflammation deals a one-two punch: pro-inflammatory messengers called cytokines further increase osteoclast production AND activate the cell so it can begin breaking down bone.

How do we fight inflammation with our forks? It takes lots of whole plant foods. Omega 3 fatty acids are critical, as are probiotics. If you are looking for a detailed strategy on anti-inflammatory living, check out my book, Un-Junk Your Diet. In addition, you can’t neglect the basic building blocks of bone: calcium, magnesium and vitamins K + D.

We all need to try to consume 1000mg of calcium each day, which we can get from non-dairy sources if we prefer. But when it comes to building strong bones, don’t forget that the pattern of your dietary choices can literally make or break your bone health too. So eat plenty of fresh plant foods and give inflammation the boot!