Encourage Kids to Get More Calcium

By Maureen Williams, ND

Healthnotes Newswire (March 16, 2006)—Getting enough calcium in the diet is critical for all children and adolescents, according to a review published in Pediatrics (2006;117:578–85).

Calcium is a mineral nutrient that is used by the body primarily to produce and repair bone. As is the case with other minerals, such as zinc, magnesium, and selenium, many children and adolescents do not get the recommended amount of calcium from their diets. Childhood and adolescence may be critical times for getting calcium; about 40% of lifetime bone mass is produced during a growth spurt that accompanies the onset of puberty.

Without adequate calcium, the likelihood of having a healthy peak bone density, which occurs about 10 to 12 years after puberty, and preventing osteoporosis later in life is believed to be low. Furthermore, children with low calcium intake have an increased risk of fractures. Supplementing with calcium has been shown to be an effective way to increase bone mass in adolescents whose diets are calcium-poor; however, its effect on peak bone density and osteoporosis risk is not known.

The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of calcium generally increases with age: the daily RDA is 210 mg for infants from 0 to 6 months and 270 mg from 6 to 12 months; for children, the RDA is 500 mg from 1 to 3 years and 800 mg from 4 to 8 years; for adolescents, the RDA is 1,300 mg from age 9 to 18; and, for adults over 19 years old, the RDA is 1,000 mg.

While nearly 100% of infants get the recommended amount of dietary calcium, that number drops to less than 80% of children 1 to 3 years old, about 55% of children 3 to 5 years old, about 30% of children 6 to 11 years old, and less than 30% of children 12 to 19 years old. Girls tend to have lower intake than boys, especially during adolescence.

Adding to concerns about low calcium intake in this age group is the presence of foods in the diet that cause calcium to be lost in the urine. Eating salty food, such as processed and fast foods, and consuming caffeine, found in soft drinks that kids often drink in large quantities, increase calcium loss. Drinking alcohol, which can be an issue in older children, similarly triggers calcium loss.

Dairy products are a primary source of calcium for many people. Choosing dairy foods that are low in fat, such as skim milk and low-fat yogurt, is important because many dairy foods are laden with saturated fat, which can contribute to increased risks of cancer and heart disease over years. Many people prefer nondairy sources of calcium, either because of milk allergy or lactose intolerance, or because of concerns about other potential long-term negative effects of consuming dairy products.

Leafy green vegetables such as kale and broccoli, tofu, beans, figs, and canned fish with bones are among the many other foods that are naturally rich in calcium. In addition, orange juice, soy milk, and breakfast cereals are sometimes fortified with calcium. In the interest of developing healthy eating habits for a lifetime, a wide array of calcium-rich foods should be recommended to children and teens. They should also be encouraged to limit the amount of salty and caffeine-containing foods they eat.

Exercise has also been shown to enhance the building of bone in people of all ages. Establishing healthy exercise habits during childhood is as important as establishing healthy eating habits.

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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