Top Tips for Bone Health in Swimmers


Dried plums. (Small)By Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD

What do dried plums, the month of May and 3-time Olympian Natalie Coughlin have in common? 


The answer is bone health, although it may not be obvious from the clues. May is National Osteoporosis Month, and dried plums have been shown to contain important nutrients to build bones. Natalie Coughlin is a spokesperson for the California Dried Plum Board, and as an athlete who swims 4 hours a day with an additional 2 hours of work in the gym as she trains for the 2016 Olympic games, she know the importance of good nutrition to swimming performance and to keeping her bones strong.

Bones are living, growing tissue, and while you are young, your body is building more bone than losing bone, so now is the time to get the strongest bones you can to prevent fractures later in life. There are some risk factors for osteoporosis that you can’t control (being female is one) but many you can control, including getting enough calcium and vitamin D and eating plenty of fruits and veggies. 

I asked Natalie how she takes care of her bones, and here are her responses to questions on nutrition and bone health:

Natalie Coughlin gets ready for a race. (Small)What foods to you routinely eat to keep your bones strong?

"I eat yogurt as a dairy source of calcium, but I also love plant-based sources of calcium like almonds, collard greens and dried plums," Natalie said. "I also pack my own snacks, like nuts, dark chocolate and dried fruit mixes for a healthy, calcium-rich snack to keep with me all day long."

Other good plant sources of calcium include kale, turnip greens, bok choy, broccoli, baked beans, dried figs, soy nuts and calcium-fortified orange juice.

Vitamin D is also needed for healthy bones, and some swimmers have been found to have low vitamin D levels because they train indoors. What vitamin D-rich foods do you eat?

Natalie lives in sunny California and has “trained outdoors her whole life” so she gets plenty of vitamin D from the sun. For a healthy food source of vitamin D, Natalie eat eggs from the chickens she raises. “Eggs are an excellent source of vitamin D,” Coughlin said.

Other food sources of vitamin D include fortified foods like milk, yogurt, breakfast cereal and margarine.  

What tips to you have for young swimmers to eat healthy?
Natalie encourages young swimmers to break out of food ruts and “experiment with different foods by visiting a local Farmer’s Market.” Natalie has a large garden and grows many of her own veggies. “Healthy food can still be delicious and pleasurable, it just takes some education,” Coughlin said. 

Try this bone-health trail mix for a pool-side or after-school snack to experiment with some new tastes for good health.

Bone-Health Trail Mix
Prep Time: 10 minutes and Cook Time: None; makes 4 cups


1 cup (about 20) dried plums, cut into quarters  
1 cup dried apple rings, cut into bite-size pieces  
1 cup toasted unsalted almonds  
½ cup shelled pistachios  
 ½ cup toasted sunflower seeds (without shells) 

INSTRUCTIONS:   Mix all ingredients in a medium-size bowl  

Nutrition Information Per Serving ( ½ cup): 140 calories; 0 mg cholesterol; 10 g total fat;  9 g carbohydrate; 4 g protein; 3 g fiber; 460 mg potassium

Chris Rosenbloom is a professor emerita of nutrition at Georgia State University and provides sports nutrition consulting services to athletes of all ages. She is the editor-in-chief of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sports Nutrition Manual, 5th edition and editor-in-chief of an online Sports Nutrition Care Manual for health care professionals. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents and coaches. Email her at chrisrosenbloom@gmail.com.