Did you know that your children’s adolescent years are critical for building bone mass? On average, peak bone mass is achieved at 12.5 years of age for girls, and 14 years of age for boys. By the age of 18, nearly 90 percent of peak bone mass has been acquired. This means that our kids must make the most of their diets and physical activity prior to becoming an adult, as they will rely on their acquired bone mass for the rest of their lives!
Why Calcium and Vitamin D?
Calcium and vitamin D are the two most important nutrients when discussing diet and bone health. Calcium is a mineral that makes up the bone structure (along with phosphorus). Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that is necessary for our bodies to absorb calcium.
Calcium is mainly found in dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that children between the ages of 9 and 18 consume three servings daily of dairy. One serving is equivalent to any of the following:
- 1 cup of milk
- 1 cup of yogurt
- 1 cup of soy milk
- 1½ ounces of natural cheese
- 2 ounces of processed cheese
Calcium is also found in smaller amounts in vegetables such as spinach, rhubarb, collard greens and beans. It would be very challenging for a child to meet 100 percent of their calcium requirements from these vegetables alone (without the help of dairy), due to the lesser calcium content found in these foods.
Vitamin D is an additive found in dairy, cereal and fortified orange juice, but also can be found naturally in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. If your kids eat three servings of dairy per day, they’re probably getting enough vitamin D as well. Vitamin D is also made by our skin when we’re out in the sun — all it takes is 10–15 minutes per day (without sunscreen).
If your kids avoid dairy products and don’t supplement with other beverages fortified with calcium/vitamin D (e.g., soy, almond or coconut milk), speak with your health care provider or dietitian about starting them on a calcium/vitamin D supplement. Remember that it’s always best for children to get nutrients from foods, but supplements can be used in situations when it isn’t realistic to expect that kids will meet their calcium/vitamin D requirements through diet.
Other Ways to Promote Bone Growth
Magnesium and phosphorus are minerals that are also beneficial in bone formation. By assuring that your children eat a variety of legumes, nuts, whole grains and vegetables, you’re helping them to meet their daily need for these nutrients.
Physical activity is also very important for building and maintaining strong bones. This may include something as simple as walking, or something as challenging as lifting weights. Any type of exercise that makes you sweat or requires weight-bearing or improving balance will benefit your bones.
Last but not least, studies show that maintaining a healthy body weight is extremely important for bone health. For children who may be struggling with being overweight or obese, be sure that they meet their calcium requirements through low-fat dairy products such as skim milk, low-fat cheeses and yogurts without added sugars.