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No Bones about It: Osteoporosis and Obesity in Women

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For a long time, obesity and some body fat were thought to help protect bones because the extra padding provided some cushioning if you fell or banged your knee or elbow on something. In the same way, it was thought that people with obesity were less likely to get osteoporosis, which occurs when the body loses too much bone or fails to make enough bone to replace the loss. Unfortunately, these views are not completely accurate.

One of the biggest risks for people with osteoporosis is a bone fracture. While this would most likely occur as the result of a fall, people with exceptionally low bone density can actually fracture a bone just by sneezing. And although osteoporosis is a greater risk for people with a low body weight or those with eating disorders, people with obesity and those of a healthy weight have the same chances of fracturing something when they fall. Since many people with obesity are not physically active, they increase their risk of falling due to poor mobility.

Because women have smaller and thinner bones than men, and their estrogen levels drop dramatically after menopause, they are at much higher risk of osteoporosis than men. In fact, of the 10 million Americans who have osteoporosis, 80 percent are women! Among them, about half of women over the age of 50 will break a bone as a result of osteoporosis. Other factors that impact this bone disease include type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and aging.

Although there is not cure for osteoporosis, there are changes women can make to help ensure their bone health is good. A bone density scan is used to test for osteoporosis. As the name suggests, it is a low-level x-ray that measures the density of calcium and minerals in bones, typically the spine, hip and often the forearm. This quick and pain-free scan is recommended for women who are 65 years or older, or women who are younger but at higher risk.

Women who are young are in a great position to protect their bones because they can ensure that they are getting enough calcium and vitamin D in their diet now to better protect them in the future. These essential nutrients sustain healthy bones so if you’re not getting enough in the foods you eat, check with your doctor about taking a supplement. Women under 50 years should have 1,000 mg. of calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D per day; women over 50 should increase each by 200.

Exercise is also critical to maintaining bone health because your bones adapt to regular activity by becoming denser. It also makes you stronger and improves coordination and balance, which reduces the chances that you’ll fall. Incorporate exercises that include weight-bearing, such as walking and dancing, as well as resistance training using weights since both are important to strengthening bones.

If you’re under 50 or perimenopausal, now is the time to check and see if you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D because the stronger your bones are before menopause, the better off you will be. For more mature women, the same nutrient requirements apply, but since bone loss has likely started, it’s also important to take extra steps such as incorporating regular exercise and limiting smoking, alcohol and caffeine. It’s never too late to take the first step!

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