Eat your bones

Bone meal is having a resurgence in popularity, but is it necessary for fit bodies?

Made from long-simmered animal bones, bone broth had a moment, popping up in restaurants and supermarkets around the country. Everyone from popular food bloggers the Hemsley sisters to elite athletes such as Kobe Bryant touted it as a superfood. Now, some athletes are turning to the bones themselves, and eating them in the form of bone meal (finely ground dried bones) via pills or powders that can be mixed into smoothies. Yes, people are mixing ground up bones into smoothies.

Much like bone broth, bone meal isn’t new; it fell out of favor in the 1980s after some studies found harmful levels of lead in certain supplements. Also alarming: Cases< of mad cow disease have been traced back to animal feed made with bone meal. But more responsible animal sourcing in recent decades has addressed these risks, assures James O’Keefe, M.D, a cardiologist, professor of medicine at the University of Missouri, and member of the Equinox Health Advisory Board.

Outside of history, know that bone broth and bone meal don’t actually have all that much in common from a nutritional standpoint. While bone broth is packed with protein and beneficial amino acids, bone meal is not, says Michelle Pesce, certified nutritional therapist and founder ofHello Palate.

One bone of contention, however, regarding meat broth has been its calcium content, or lack thereof, says O’Keefe. “Because the bones aren’t dissolved and are taken out before eating, it’s a relatively poor source of calcium,” says O’Keefe, who is also one of the authors of a calcium studypublished in the journal Open Heart.

That’s where bone meal shines. Whole bones contain calcium in addition to other important minerals, such as phosphorous, and enzymes. The study concluded that it's best to get calcium from food sources whenever possible. But, bone meal might help the many people (read: about half of people over 50) who are at risk for osteoporosis, or weak bones, get their recommended daily dose. Supplements (like this one developed by O'Keefe or this one recommended by Pesce) appear to make bones thicker, the study authors wrote.

Still, “If you identify yourself as a fit person, it is likely you are enjoying the nutrient-dense, whole food diet required to meet dietary guidelines of calcium intake [the FDA recommends 1000 mg/day for adults ages 18-50],” says Pesce. So, you may wonder why some of the fit elite are still sipping bone meal smoothies. “There is a general consensus that because bone is largely made up of calcium, the more we take the more it will increase the density in our bones,” says Pesce, noting that it’s not quite that simple and a variety of factors goes into building both bone density and muscle. Plus, it’s completely possible to over-do it on calcium. Too much could speed up an abnormal hardening of the arteries and lead to kidney stones, according to Elisabeth von der Lohe, M.D., a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Indiana University.

Pesce maintains that if you are engaged in a healthy lifestyle, “you should only consider bone meal as support to boost your calcium intake on days that you aren’t getting optimal amounts from whole foods.” So maybe whip up a bone meal smoothie to-go on those back-to-back meetings days when you know a real lunch won’t be an option.

The bottom line: For the average fit and healthy adult, your best bet is to get your daily calcium intake via foods such as sardines, canned salmon, fermented dairy products, and dark leafy greens. Consider a bone meal supplement if you need an alternative source (say, you don't eat many of the foods listed above or you have a family history of osteoporosis.) If you're unsure whether you're getting enough, discuss your bone health needs with your doctor.

Additional reporting from Furthermore editors