How can we improve our diets towards supporting our muscle-bone system? What is the role nutrition plays in preventing the most common muscle and bone health conditions?
We all agree that our muscles and bones are extremely important and useful to us. While bones provide our body’s structure and form, muscles provide our body with the power to carry out all necessary life processes.
Yet our muscles and bones are biologically quite complex and these organs are often susceptible to various health issues. Many of us have experienced weakness, discomfort, or even pain around different muscle-bone areas of our bodies. Some of us might even have had serious injuries such as muscle tears or bone fractures.
Even if you have never experienced health issues with how your muscles and bones function in your body, it is still useful to learn the basic science behind nutrition and muscle-bone health.
We begin with an overview of the most common conditions that affect muscles and bones. What is important to know about dealing with muscle-bone health issues?
Next, we focus on the importance of our diet in keeping muscles and bones strong. What are the key nutrients that support proper functioning of our muscle-bone systems?
Last, we focus on the Mediterranean Diet – often described as the gold standard in preventative health. How is the Mediterranean Diet efficient in keeping muscles and bones strong, and does this diet prevent muscle-bone health issues?
Let’s together use science to tune our diets – make our muscles and bones optimized again!
Part 1: Muscle & Bone Health Conditions
Different health issues might affect how muscles and bones function as organs in our bodies. Yet there are two health conditions that are most important to focus on:
- Osteoporosis – which disturbs bones and
- Sarcopenia – which disturbs muscles
Both of these conditions are associated with each other, meaning that these conditions often occur in the same individuals at the same time (aka. co-occurrence) [R1]. In addition, osteoporosis and sarcopenia are also linked with other well-known health complications, such as obesity or type 2 diabetes [R2].
Before we jump into how we can optimize our diets (next two sections), first we need to discuss why it is important to focus on preventing these common bone and muscle conditions in the first place?
1.1 Osteoporosis – Silent Bone Weakness
Osteoporosis is a condition characterized by slowly-developing damage in different bones around the body – a process that usually lasts multiple years. Over time, such progressive damage of bone microstructure leads to overall loss of bone mass [R3].
Osteoporosis compromises the overall strength of bone tissue and thus is a major risk factor for bone fractures [R4]. In fact, unexpected bone fractures are a significant public health problem on a global level [R5]. This is especially true for older adults. There is a proven statistical relationship between people’s age and the risk of bone fractures caused by falling [R6].
In the United States, it has been estimated that osteoporosis occurred in approximately 10.3 % of the entire adult population in the year 2010 [R9]. Following this measured trend, researchers estimate that this number will likely rise to approximately 15% of US adults by the year 2030 [R9].
1.2 Sarcopenia – Silent Muscle Weakness
Before we discuss sarcopenia as a health condition, it is important to realize that it is completely natural for our bodies to lose gradually some muscle mass over time as we age. This is a normal process that starts approximately in late adulthood and continues as we grow old.
Researchers fully agree that slow loss of muscle mass continues to occur across the human lifespan. However, estimates vary on how much muscle loss occurs on average, as well as how much muscle loss is within healthy ranges for individuals [R10]. The average decline in muscle mass between 40 and 80 years is estimated to be between 30% to 50% [R11] & [R12].
Naturally occurring loss of muscle mass may sometimes accelerate due to lifestyle factors. In such cases, excessive muscle weakness can lead to more serious health complications. Sarcopenia is a condition that is defined with abnormal loss of muscle tissue and/or muscle weakness and lower muscle function [R13].
Among others, lifestyle factors associated with greater loss of muscle mass include:
- insufficient physical activity
- poor nutrition pattern
Considering recent scientific definitions for sarcopenia, researchers estimate that approximately 1/3rd of older adults who independently live in communities experience some degree of sarcopenia-related muscle weakness [R14].
1.3 Muscles & Bones Begin to Biologically-Age in Young-Adulthood
One important scientific discovery is that loss of bone mass also occurs in young adults – in both young women and men alike [R15].
It has been observed that bone mass and skeletal muscle mass usually reach a peak sometime during early adulthood, before slowly declining as enter into late-adulthood [R16].
Therefore, the health status of our muscle-bone systems in late adulthood is determined by two factors:
- how much bone and skeletal muscle was developed during childhood and adolescence
- how fast bone and muscle tissue declines after it reaches peak growth | Resource: [R16]
Researchers have taken this knowledge a step further and have used computer modeling to predict the chances for osteoporosis in individuals – based on participants’ bone density at the time of peak growth (during early adulthood). It was determined that peak bone mineral density (a measure of bone strength) is likely the most reliable way to predict the timing when a person might start developing osteoporosis later in life [R17].
The key takeaway is that it is smart to focus on keeping muscles and bones healthy – even during early stages of our life including childhood and teenage years. Yet, it is never too late to start focusing on consuming a more healthy diet!
Part 2: Optimize Muscle & Bone Function with Diet
How can we optimize our diet towards improving muscle-bone performance in our bodies? In other words, what is the latest nutrition science on keeping muscles and bones functioning well?
In the following sections, we focus on the most important nutrients that support healthy muscles and bones.
2.1 Calcium and Vitamin D
On its own, calcium is a key nutrient for bone tissue physiological process. Bone tissue is composed of a matrix that contains calcium-phosphate molecules plus many layers of collagen fibers.
The calcium phosphate molecules exist in a special chemical arrangement – known as hydroxylapatite. This is a type of mineral that gives bones their rigidity and needs calcium to form [R18]. Not surprisingly, bones require continuous and reliable calcium levels to keep building new bone tissue.
As we enter into adulthood, our bodies maintain the ability to retain sufficient Calcium and Vitamin D levels from our diets. However, as we age into late adulthood, our body Calcium and Vitamin D levels begin to decrease slowly as we age. In women, menopause is associated with the onset of higher loss of dietary calcium [R19].
To properly carry out their roles in bone health, Calcium and Vitamin D depend on each other’s presence in the system at the same time [R20]. For example, Vitamin D deficiency contributes to lower absorption of dietary calcium in the intestines (because this process requires Vitamin D to be present in the intestines in order to stimulate calcium absorption) [R21].
Without Vitamin D, less than 15% of dietary calcium is absorbed in the intestines [R22]. However, when Vitamin D is present and interacts with receptors on intestinal cells, this increases calcium absorption to approximately 35% [R23].
Another important finding is that long-term Vitamin D deficiency often results in increased levels of parathyroid hormone (PTH). This is important because PTH regulates the rate at which bones make new tissue – which is necessary to replace old ‘used’ bone tissue [R24].
When we do not consume foods that are rich in Vitamin D/Calcium, this might lead to a nutrient deficiency in either (or both) of these nutrients in our bodies.
Why is it important for us to maintain healthy Vitamin D and Calcium levels?
Researchers have examined the link between Vitamin D and the balance of bone turnover. This refers to the balance between the rate at which bone tissue is ‘used’ and the rate at which new bone tissue is produced tissue). Thus, Vitamine D is essential for ‘used’ bone tissue replacement.
Lower blood concentrations of biologically active Vitamin D are associated with:
- increased bone turnover
- loss of bone tissue
- lower muscle strength
- lower muscle function
- and increased risk of falls and fractures Source: [R25].
Overall, there are multiple links between higher Calcium and Vitamin D intake in our diets and more-optimal functioning of our muscle-bone system.
2.2 Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Many of us might already know something about the importance of consuming omega 3 fatty acids as part of our diets.
To better understand why omega 3 fatty acids are important in this scientific story, first, we must discuss the effects of low-grade systemic inflammation on our muscles and bones. This type of long-term and moderate inflammation is caused by immune system molecules – known as cytokines [R26].
Inflammation-causing cytokines accumulate as people become older. More importantly, such cytokines are involved in the molecular mechanisms which regulate the rate of synthesis (or degradation) of proteins found in muscles [R27].
Research suggests that long-term systemic inflammation plays important roles in age-related conditions, including in the development of sarcopenia [R28]. Chronic inflammation is also associated with impaired muscle function [R29] and a higher risk of bone fractures [R30].
So how are omega 3 fatty acids important for optimal muscle and bone health?
Omega 3 fatty acids act against the breakdown of muscle-proteins – which is otherwise partly driven by inflammation-causing cytokines. As such, omega 3 fatty acid supplements are an effective prevention tactic aginst sarcopenia-related muscle weakness [R31].
This effect has been confirmed in studies examining the effects of increased consumption of different types of fatty fish – which are most likely the richest sources of omega 3 fatty acids in people’s diets nowadays. Consuming fatty-fish such as sardines, herring, anchovies, salmon, trout, tuna or mackerel, is positively associated with grip strength in older adults [R32]. This is important because grip strength is actually a convenient scientific way to measure both muscle strength and muscle function.Knowledge is so often found by noticing small details - Being extremely precise is the driving force behind scientific discovery and progress.Click To Tweet
2.3 Protein Intake
Foods that contain high protein content are essential for human health – mainly because these foods are our primary sources of amino acids. The human body uses amino acids from digested protein-rich foods as the basic building blocks for making our own body proteins that are necessary for all life processes.
Eating a low-protein diet may result in an overall negative nitrogen balance in our body – a progression that ultimately leads to loss of skeletal muscle mass [R34].
On the other hand, increasing protein intake in your diet can contribute to an overall more-healthy metabolic activity in your body.
Higher-protein diets support healthy metabolism in the following two cases:
- when overweight and obese adults are trying to lose weight (always a healthy step forward) [R35]
- when athletic individuals exercise (during periods of increased energy demand for the body) [R36]
Researchers have also examined whether there are added health benefits if people distribute protein intake equally between their meals throughout the day. This is in contrast to the traditional skewed intake of protein throughout a single day (when you eat the majority of your daily proteins in one big meal – for example, dinner).
The results show that that distributing a high protein diet equally between meals helps to optimize the processes that regulate the body’s 24h synthesis of muscle proteins [R37]. Although this strategy is relatively new, distributing proteins between meals has certainly caught the attention of the scientific community [R38].
Last, it is important to know that high protein diets also increase calcium absorption in the intestines [R39]. This is similar to the positive role Vitamin D plays in dietary calcium absorption (discussed above).
Part 3: Mediterranean Diet Protects Muscles & Bones
If you are consuming a relatively healthy diet, then you might consider focusing on individual nutrients. In such a case, you should improve your intake of those nutrients that might be insufficient in your diet.
However, the real effects of individual nutrients depend on your overall nutrition pattern – your overall diet that you consume over longer periods. Because of this, an even better strategy is to adopt a diet pattern that is proven to have positive effects on muscle-bone health.
The effectiveness of the Mediterranian Diet has been demonstrated in multiple scientific studies. In fact, this diet is likely the most researched type of diet in preventative health studies.
So what are the benefits of this diet type, specifically for keeping our muscles and bones healthy?
3.1 Mediterranian Diet & Bone Strenght
Appart from being rich in the main nutrients which drive muscle-bone health, the Mediteraining Diet is also rich in other key nutrients that likely play smaller roles in reducing the overall risk for osteoporosis and bone fractures. Some of these other nutrients include:
- vitamin K
- vitamin C | Source: [R40]
In one large study on older adult participants from the United States and Europe, researchers have examined the relationship between consuming a Mediterranean Diet and the risk of hip fractures among older adults. The results showed that higher adherence to followi1ng of the provided Mediterranean Diet instructions resulted in lower risk for hip fracture in study participants [R41].
Adhering to a Mediterranian Diet pattern has also been associated with lower risk of hip fractures in post-menopausal women – a population category at much higher risk (discussed above) [R42].
3.2 Mediterranian Diet & Muscle Strenght
The Meditteranean Diet supports muscle strength and health too! Apart from the main nutrients we discussed, this diet also contains other nutrients that very likely play significant roles in muscle health. Such nutrients include:
- vitamin C
- magnesium | Source [R43]
In a study consisting of 2863 women participants aged 18 to 79 years, the Mediterranean Diet positively influenced skeletal muscle mass and muscle power [R44].Mediterranean Diet supports bone and muscle strength - get the latest science and optimize your health!Click To Tweet
3.3 Mediterranean Diet – Healthy & Delicious
The Mediterranean Diet has the following characteristics:
- it is mainly a plant-based diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and unprocessed cereals
- the diet also includes moderate intakes of fish
- low intakes of meat, dairy, and saturated fats
- the main source of fat in the diet is olive oil (preferably extra virgin olive oil)
- regularly consumption of moderate amounts of alcohol (mainly red or white wine) | Source: [R45]
Doesn’t it seem delicious and balanced at first?
It is also worth knowing that the Mediterranean Diet is very beneficial towards preventing health conditions which are not necessarily muscle-bone complications.
Closely following Mediterranian Diet requirements is a powerful strategy for preventing health conditions including:
- metabolic syndrome
- some types of cancer
- respiratory diseases
- even cognitive disorders | Source [R46]
Indeed, there are many good scientific health reasons why you should consider starting the Mediterranean Diet [R47]. The efficacy of this diet towards stronger muscles and bones is, of course, important for Health Optimizers reading this post.