Kids Need a Calcium Boost

Healthnotes Newswire (February 14, 2008)—Kids’ diets are notorious for their lack of fruits and vegetables and for their abundance of highly processed, high-sugar, high-fat, high-calorie foods, so it might come as no surprise that their diets come up short in important nutrients, including calcium. A new study found that kids between ages 4 and 18 don’t get enough calcium, and much of what they get is from high-fat dairy foods like ice cream and cheese.

Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the human body, and although 99% of it is in the bones and teeth, it plays a critical role in the normal functioning of every cell in the body. The calcium we get in childhood and adolescence is important for achieving normal growth, developing strong bones and teeth, and ensuring healthy bones later in life, when low bone density (osteoporosis) can lead to high fracture risk.

The new study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, included 7,716 kids between 2 and 18 years old. Their dairy intake was compared to amounts recommended by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “MyPyramid,” and their calcium intake was compared to the Institute of Medicine’s levels for Adequate Intake (AI).

Children from two to three years old met MyPyramid guidelines of 2 cups of milk per day (or the equivalent amount of nonmilk dairy foods), but none of the other age groups got the 2 to 3 cups per day recommended for kids their age. High-fat dairy foods accounted for one-half of younger kids’ dairy intake and more than one-third of older kids’ dairy intake. Children from two to eight years old met AI recommendations for calcium intake (500 to 800 mg per day), but 9 to 18 year olds did not achieve their recommended intake of 1,300 mg per day.

Previous studies looking into children’s nutrition have yielded similar results: they’re not getting as much calcium as they should. “This is just the tip if the iceberg,” commented Julianne Forbes, a naturopathic doctor who does nutritional work with children and adults. “It is very likely that kids are not getting optimal amounts of a wide array of minerals and other nutrients—they’re simply not found in the super-processed diet many children and adolescents eat.”

In the United States, about 50% of people’s dietary calcium comes from dairy foods, and institutions that make and promote public health policies have historically recommended eating plenty of dairy foods to ensure they get enough calcium. A high-dairy diet, however, raises some concerns, because many dairy foods—such as ice cream and flavored milk and yogurt—have lots of added sugar, and others—such as most cheeses and cream-based sauces and toppings—are high in saturated fat.

Calcium sources—beyond dairy

While milk is a good source of calcium, some people are unable or choose not to eat dairy foods, and for them, other options can be just as healthy. Nondairy calcium sources include green vegetables like broccoli and kale, soybeans and tofu, canned fish with the bones, sea vegetables, molasses, and figs.

“I try to encourage people to eat and feed their children a very rounded diet, and not to rely solely on dairy for calcium,” Forbes added. “Cooking green vegetables helps increase the availability of their calcium, and using a little vinegar on them increases calcium absorption. Not all kids will eat greens, but parents can keep trying, offering other things they might like, such as nori and other seaweeds, sweet potato, toasted sesame seeds, tofu, and figs. It helps if they don’t have access to sodas and chips and other non-nutritious foods, so parents have to think about improving their own diets as well.” She also pointed out that adequate vitamin D—from sun exposure and dietary sources, such as cod liver oil—is critical for good calcium absorption and use.

(J Pediatr 2007;151:642–6)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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