Relationship Between Healthy Eating and Healthy Joints
Written by: Calvin Huynh
People eat for so many reasons. Some eat for pleasure, muscle growth, fat loss, and especially health.
We are what we eat is quite true. The calories and various nutrients you put in your mouth reflects many outcomes of your health. However, when we think about nutrition for health, we rarely think of joint health. I mean, the foundation of your organs, tissues, and joints are built upon the building blocks of food.
So food is quite important for how brittle or strong your bones will be.
It Starts With Energy Balance
You probably heard of the concept of calories in vs calories. This is the law of physics that determines your balance of energy. In other words, how much you eat vs how much you burn off.
This is often discussed when referring to fat loss or muscle growth, but it’s relevant for bone health as well. If you manage your body composition, you’ll manage your joint health. The balance of calories you should consume is based on where your current body fat levels are at.
If you’re overweight or obese, losing fat is the primary way to improve your joint health (1). Imagine dropping 20 pounds of fat tissue off your frame. You will have less useless inflammatory tissue and less total stress on joints and connective tissues. This is especially true in people with metabolic syndromes like type-2 diabetes, so the more unhealthier you are, the more you need weight loss for joint health. A bit of a now brainer.
But it’s not a matter of always eating less. Muscle mass also supports bone health, so given a healthy body composition and body weight, more muscle is generally better. In fact, strength training can reverse bone mineral losses even in postmenopausal women who tend to have huge joint health complications (2).
If you strength train and want to build a lot of muscle, an energy surplus is generally best, meaning you will have to gain weight to optimize joint health (3). You can technically gain muscle without eating in a surplus, but your rate of muscle growth will be slower.
Including exercise to implement your intended energy is better as well. If you’re losing fat, exercising allows you to eat more food to reach the same deficit which allows for more nutrients. This is also why slower, less extreme dieting is also better for bone health. You can eat more food which prevents your body from getting too catabolic (4).
As for lankier people who need to build muscle, you must include strength training as your exercise. Without strength training’s ability to stimulate additional muscle growth, eating in a surplus would simply expand fat tissue which is counter-intuitive to having healthy bones.
So before moving forward with the article, know that exercising is critical, but so is caloric intake. If you’re overweight, you need to eat in a deficit. If you’re a skinnier person, you should eat in a surplus for joint health.
So we covered how much you should be eating. Now let’s go over what you should be eating.
Protein is important. Protein is the building blocks of many of the structures in your body including joints and connective tissue. However, if you scour the internet enough, you’ll find some fake news about protein being bad for bone health.
Anyone telling you that should get a brain scan. Don’t believe them. Protein will enhance your bone mineral turnover by providing building blocks in addition to supporting muscle growth which we already established is good for you.
Research finds protein is beneficial for bone health even after a deficit (5). Longer studies show more benefit as well, so a good rule of thumb is to eat 0.8-1 gram per pound of bodyweight in protein daily.
No need to cycle on and off your protein intake either. Keep your protein high and provide your body the building blocks it needs to be resilient.
Furthermore, animal proteins have more individual building blocks aka amino acids. So unless vegan diets have high protein intakes, consuming a portion of your protein from animal sources is suggested for the best joint health.
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium and vitamin D both have mechanisms to enhance bone health (6,7,8). Arguably vitamin D is more important as it aids in calcium absorption and is more commonly deficient in people.
Blood work is generally recommended to screen for deficiencies, but here are general rule of thumbs in case you’re too lazy to see a doctor.
If you don’t eat dairy, you’re deficient in calcium
If you don’t go out in the sun for at least an hour each day, you’re deficient in vitamin D.
Not many non-dairy foods have calcium and you’ll likely need at least 2 servings of it on top a whole food diet. For women, the daily recommended intake is 1200mg for women and 1000mg for men. These recommendations expand with conditions of pregnancy.
So unless you’re a dairy fiend, you’ll need to supplement with at least 500mg of calcium citrate once to twice per day.
As for Vitamin D, most foods don’t have much and we benefits with doses that are higher than what most people consume (9). Even athletes exercising outside are often deficient suggesting that active individuals should supplement (10).
In general, a daily supplementation of 2000-5000 iu will cover your bases. Regardless, you’re still encouraged to get daily sunlight cause it can’t hurt your joint health to get more vitamin D.
Fish Oil and Vitamin K
Fish oil and vitamin K have been shown to benefit people with osteoarthritis (1). Whole fish is a good alternative to fish oil.
As for vitamin k rich foods, all greens have a good amount with darker greens having more.
Adequate intake is currently 120mcg for men and 90mcg for women. This means getting a few healthy servings of greens should cover this. However, if you’re not a veggie eater, you better become one. Veggies are some of the most nutrient rich foods for bone health.
In fact, the compounds within plants like fruits and veggies are critical for bone health especially in at risk populations (11,12,13).
Considerations for Athletes
Athletes and people who train hard are in a bit of a different population. Their micronutrients requirements are higher, their joints experience more stress, and their lifestyle increases the rate of bone injuries.
One review paper looked at considerations for more athletic populations (14).
In addition to protein, vitamin D, and calcium considerations, it found the following.
Low energy availability: This is when athletes diet so low often for weight class or physique specific sports that some bodily functions stop working. So always consider how you’ll diet when dropping calories excessively low or consider reducing training demands to compensate.
Low carbohydrate availability: Carbs can be deemed as the athletic macronutrient showing to either always match or enhance performance especially in high intensity endurance sports. Ensuring sufficient carb intake and avoiding low carb diets will benefit athletes.
Sodium losses: Without replenishing sodium levels, you set yourself up for weak bones chronically on top of during an exercise session when dehydration can increase bone fractures.
To optimize this, sufficient daily sodium intake should be in check. For high demanding sports especially with major sweat loss, intra-workout sodium intake is also crucial.
So the more intense your training is, the more you should consider a mid-workout drink of carbs and sodium on top of eating more calories to support your sport.
Make Joint Health Sexy Again
Ok, so we all eat for so many reasons, but no matter if you’re a crossfit competitor, a hardcore powerlifter with a barbell compressing your spine, or even if you’re an old fart with osteoarthritis, your nutrition will impact your joint health.
Your diet needs to support your lifestyle. This means training to strengthen your bones, but it also means eating the correct amount of calories, munching on sufficient protein, and eating plenty of key nutrient dense foods.
Your skeleton will thank you when you turn 60 and can still deadlift.
Calvin Huynh is a trainer, online coach, and joyful ruler behind AwesomeFitnessScience.com. He enjoys helping people live healthier lives with irresistibly hot bodies. When he’s not working with clients, he spends his time writing articles, dreaming of unicorns, and eating whole pints of ice cream on a comfortable couch somewhere in Southern California.