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Healthy eating for healthy joints

HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition, Total Force Fitness
Is what you eat keeping your joints healthy? Find out how nutrition can help your joints carry on.

You can take control of how your daily eating habits help or hurt your body’s joints. The physical demands of training and missions—along with day-to-day exercise, overuse, injury, and aging—can take their toll on your joints over time. There are certain eating habits you can practice to help keep your joints happy and healthy for the long run.

  • Aim for a healthy weight. Extra weight means extra stress on your joints – walking alone can cause your knees to take on 3–6 times your body weight. Maintain a healthy weight or lose weight if you need to. Visit HPRC’s Fighting Weight Strategies for ideas.
  • Fight inflammation. Include omega-3 fatty acids on your plate to reduce your body’s inflammation. Salmon isn’t your only source; foods such as English walnuts, flaxseeds and their oil, canola oil, and other fish contribute omega-3s to your eating plan. See HPRC’s omega-3 table for more foods rich in omega-3s.
  • Fill up on fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables, all of which are nutrient-heavy, have been linked to a lower incidence of joint diseases such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at meals, and build snacks around them too.
  • Revive with vitamin C. Because of its role in forming collagen (the main component of connective tissue) and as an antioxidant, foods high in vitamin C are important for joint health. Oranges, Brussels sprouts, strawberries, red peppers, and kiwi are excellent sources.

Focusing on a healthy weight and filling up on nutrient-rich foods, along with regular exercise and stretching, can help optimize the long-term health and performance of your joints. 

Eating for healthy joints and bones

HPRC Fitness Arena: Nutrition, Total Force Fitness
The physical demands placed on the Warfighter can take a toll on joints and bones over time. Following a healthy diet can keep your joints and bones in good shape.

The physical demands placed on the Warfighter in training and operational settings can take a toll on joints and bones over time. Following a healthy diet can help reduce your risk of many diseases and maintain healthy joints and bones. A few nutrients have been shown to support joint and bone health, including calcium, vitamin D, vitamin C, and selenium. Consuming too much alcohol has been shown to have a negative effect.

Calcium and vitamin D work together for strong bones and overall bone health, because vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. Men and women ages 19–50 should try to get 1000 mg of calcium daily; older women need 1200 mg daily. Good sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, fortified orange juice, and green leafy vegetables. Your body produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight, but you can also get it in your diet from salmon, tuna, and fortified dairy products. Adults need about 600 IUs of vitamin D daily.

Vitamin C is essential for cartilage—the material that cushions your joints and prevents bones from rubbing together. Men need about 90 mg and women need about 75 mg daily, roughly the amount in a large orange. You can get vitamin C from citrus fruit, broccoli, and tomatoes.

Dietary selenium (a mineral) also may play a role in bone health. Adults need about 55 mcg of selenium daily. Selenium is found in nuts (especially Brazil nuts), tuna, and sunflower seeds.

Drinking too much alcohol negatively affects many of the body’s systems, including the bones and joints. Alcohol can cause weight gain, increase risk for osteoporosis and stress injuries, and damage cartilage. Limit your alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two for men. A drink is defined as one 5 oz. glass of wine, one 12 oz. beer, or one 1.5 oz. shot of liquor.

Inflammation can play a role in joint conditions such as arthritis, so a diet that helps reduce inflammation might be beneficial in protecting your joints. Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats (found in nuts and fatty fish such as salmon) not only reduces inflammation, it can also help maintain a healthy weight, which is essential to preserving joint health.

Excess body weight stresses joints and increases wear and tear. Following a diet that is lower in fat and calories can help maintain or reduce body weight, preventing additional joint stress. For more information about healthy joints, read the fact sheet from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Also, Chapter 17 of the Warfighter Nutrition Guide, “The High Mileage Warrior Athlete,” provides more information on maintaining joint and bone health.

Injury Prevention Part 2 – Don’t neglect your ankles!

Injuries to the ligaments of the ankle are very common in the military, but there are some important tips you can use to help prevent them.

Stretching and strengthening the muscles of the foot and ankle can help you prevent (and recover) from ankle sprains. The Foot and Ankle Conditioning Program from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons focuses on recovering from injury, but it includes well-illustrated exercises that are good for preventive conditioning too. Here are some other exercises useful for strengthening the foot and ankle structure:

  • From a seated position, “pretend” writing the alphabet with each foot, in both upper- and lower-case letters.
  • Stand on one leg on a pillow for 10 seconds and then switch legs. Be sure to have something nearby to grab for balance if necessary.
  • From a seated position, use a resistance band looped to a secure surface, and wrap the other end around your forefoot; then move your foot/ankle forward, backward, and side-to-side, flexing at the ankle.

An ankle sprain involves damage to ligaments—bands of tissue that help hold joints together—in the foot and ankle, usually from the force of landing wrong on your foot. In military populations, ankle sprains are very common, significantly affecting operational readiness. In fact, ankle sprains are more common in the military than in civilian populations and more likely among women than men. By strengthening the muscles in your legs and feet, you can give more support to your ankle in the event of a misstep or an encounter with uneven terrain. The transition from military boots, which offer more ankle support, to traditional athletic shoes may also leave you and your ankles feeling vulnerable to twists and sprains. Start including ankle-strengthening exercises into your daily workout routine to help keep your ankles strong and free from injury.

Take some weight off your knees—or pay the price

A 2012 study demonstrated that an increase in body mass index (BMI) increased a person’s chance of sustaining a non-contact ACL injury.

Being overweight puts you at risk for a whole host of health issues, but most people don’t think about the risk posed to their knees. The anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, is one of the major ligaments of the knee and one of the most susceptible to injury. Injury information on more than 1,600 men and women at the U.S. Naval Academy showed that those with a higher body mass index (BMI) had a greater incidence of ACL tears. A difference in BMI of only 1.2 (25.6 versus 24.4) made the difference between having and not having this kind of injury. (To learn more about BMI, read HPRC's explanation.)

Like the adage “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” knees are something we generally take for granted. To stay on top of your game, you need your knees. An easy way to protect them is to drop the extra weight you’re asking them to carry around.

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