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Osteoporosis causes bones to become brittle and break easily, especially those in the spine, hips and wrists.

Viewpoint: Helping college-age students invest in bone health, dodge osteoporosis years later

Eating a diet filled with bone-building nutrients is essential in these formative years, an opportunity for college food service teams to help educate and empower students about preventing osteoporosis, one of the most common—and least understood—diseases in the U.S.

While collegiate student bodies tend to be diverse, one thing most have in common is their age. Most students range between 18 and 22 years old. By then, students are close to achieving their peak bone mass, determining the strongest their bones will ever be. After that, they can hope to retain or regain their peak, but their bones will not get stronger.

Little-known fact: Osteoporosis is a pediatric condition that manifests in adulthood. Most people don’t know they have it until they break a bone or start losing height. Not taking care of our bones when we are young causes them to break easily when we are older. In contrast, we learn to brush and floss our teeth as children so that they will last a lifetime. What if we learned how to keep our bones strong at the same time?

Why (and when) prevention matters

Osteoporosis causes bones to become brittle and break easily, especially those in the spine, hips and wrists. And it doesn’t discriminate across age, race or gender. According to the Bone Health and Osteoporosis Foundation, half of women over the age of 50 and a quarter of all men in the U.S. will suffer an osteoporosis related fracture in their lifetimes.

This wouldn’t be the case for the next generation if our efforts went into prevention and building strong bones in teens and young adults rather than simply managing the disease once the symptoms — and fractures — appear later on.

Our food and beverage choices play a large role in keeping our bones strong throughout life. ‘Peak bone mass’ means bones’ ideal strength, and by the time we’re in our 20s, our bones are at their strongest. From then on, our body works to maintain that quality. Sharing this message in college dining halls could empower students at a time when it makes a positive impact for their future health and wellbeing.

Prevention is something that can easily be integrated into dining halls through education around recipe development and nutrition, as well as direct messaging to student diners at point of selection. Just as dining halls provide nutrition and allergy information around ingredients for each dish, they can also add a bone healthy component to existing messaging and marketing efforts. Food service directors can also strategically place certain food or beverage stations around the dining area. One simple example is to keep water bottle refill stations visible and easy to access with signage that emphasizes the critical nature of water in establishing and maintaining strong bones.

According to a report by NYU nutritional knowledge is a key factor that influences student decision making when it comes to their dietary habits. This presents an opportunity for nutrition information to be shared and incorporated into dining hall campaigns. One such example is for athletic departments – in conjunction with foodservice – to get onboard with helping students make healthy choices for their bones. Imagine the star basketball player takes a selfie eating a bone healthy meal for breakfast and influences others on campus to do the same. Letting students take the lead with sharing the information can be very effective, leaning on the influence on student athletes and other student leaders to encourage behavioral shifts in others.

Menus: More of this, less of that

When considering what to serve and what to avoid in dining halls, know that calcium helps bone strength, but that is just one piece of the puzzle. Other nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin K, zinc and potassium are necessary.

With this in mind, here are some tips to consider when thinking about what to serve:

  • Some of the healthiest foods for our bones come from the ocean. Fish like salmon with the bones, sardines, tuna, and mackerel are all good for bone density.
  • Seaweed is great for bone density. Eating a salad each day with lots of leafy greens is an excellent choice for students at mealtime.
  • A baked or mashed potato with cheese has potassium needed for strong bones plus the added calcium that dairy provides.
  • Plain yogurt with berries is a good choice because of their vitamin and phytochemical content.  

Food and beverage choices that may taste good but don’t have bone health-related benefits include:

  • High-sodium foods cause our body to lose calcium, and sugary snacks provide empty calories. Keep options that are salty and sugary to a minimum, or at least place them in less visible places in the dining hall.
  • Soda weakens bones because of the phosphoric acid active ingredient, which causes an acidic state in the body. As mentioned previously, try adding water refill stations around the dining hall and around campus as a whole.
  • Caffeine, too, leaches calcium from your bones so try to provide ample alternatives for students looking for beverage options at, or in between, mealtimes.
  • Eating too much red meat also leaches calcium from the bones. When our bodies need extra calcium to balance out the damage from poor food choices, they take it from our bones first.

Encouraging simple swaps in students’ food and beverage choices can make critical progress toward healthier bones. There’s a tremendous opportunity for collegiate food service teams to influence these decisions for students, whether through integrated campaigns or simple signage at point of selection in the cafeteria. Engaging student influencers to also encourage better dietary practices is another consideration, drawing on the fact that young people are influenced by what their friends are eating, or not.

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