Help Children Get the Calcium They Need—With or Without Dairy

A Healthnotes Newswire Opinion

Healthnotes Newswire (December 14, 2006)—Dairy products are a rich source of calcium, but are they really essential for bone health? According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, it’s almost impossible for adolescents to get enough calcium without consuming dairy. However, exercise, sun exposure, and other food sources of calcium should not be overlooked as ways to ensure healthy bone development in growing kids.

As their bodies are busy growing bones, children need more calcium. Unfortunately, many teens don’t get nearly enough of this nutrient; only about 25% of boys and 10% of girls meet the recommended daily intake of 1,300 mg.

Besides its role in skeletal development, calcium is also necessary to help nerves to function, muscles to contract, and blood to clot properly.

In the United States, more than 50% of the calcium people get in their diets is from milk and milk products. As a follow-up to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of 2001–2002, researchers tried to determine if it is possible for adolescents to fulfill their calcium needs while avoiding dairy products.

Using computer models of high-calcium, no-dairy diets, they found that children would fall short by as much as 430 mg of calcium per day by excluding dairy from their diets. The researchers concluded, “Adequate intake for calcium cannot be met with dairy-free diets while meeting other nutrient recommendations…within the current US dietary pattern.” However, they overlooked other sources of calcium that can bridge the gap.

Don’t depend on dairy alone

While the new study results may make you want to pour your child a tall glass of milk, a few points should be considered.

The study showed that children who eat no dairy might be able to double their calcium intake by eating more nondairy high-calcium foods, such as fortified orange juice. Since the researchers “did not select food quantities exceeding amounts usually eaten in the population,” it could be argued that calcium intake might be increased even more if more nontraditional foods like sesame seeds, tofu, bok choy, and canned fish with bones were eaten regularly.

Finally, when it comes to bone health, the importance of physical exercise and adequate sun exposure should not be overlooked. Studies have shown that girls who are more physically active tend to have stronger bones, even when their calcium intake is below the recommended level. Getting five to ten minutes of sunshine a few times per week provides the body with vitamin D—a nutrient the body needs to properly absorb calcium.

Bone-building tips

The following tips provide a more balanced approach to protecting against osteoporosis:

• Get active—Regular physical exercise, preferably outdoors, helps build strong and healthy bones.

• Avoid caffeinated, carbonated, and sugary beverages—These drinks contribute to bone loss.

• Make sure you get plenty of calcium-rich foods—In addition to dairy foods, or if dairy is not an option due to allergy or intolerance, eat plenty of broccoli, almonds, beets, figs, beans (especially black beans and navy beans), and green leafy vegetables like collard greens and kale, as well as calcium-fortified foods.

• Eat a nutritionally balanced diet—Eat a variety of foods to make sure you get nutrients like vitamin K, B vitamins, magnesium, boron, zinc, vitamin C, and copper that are necessary for bone health.

(J Am Diet Assoc 2006;106:1759–65)

Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI. Dr. Beauchamp practices as a birth doula and lectures on topics including whole-foods nutrition, detoxification, and women’s health.

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