We know that calcium is a must for kids of all ages — tiny tots to growing teens need it to help build and maintain strong, healthy bones. But new research shows that kids have the best bone health in adolescence when they get calcium-filled dairy products plus plenty of other protein sources like meat.
Looking at 12 years' worth of "food diaries" kept by the families of more than 100 kids (starting between ages 3 and 5 and keeping tabs into their teens), researchers found that the kids who regularly ate two or more servings of dairy products each day had much healthier bones as adolescents.
But the kids who consistently got two-plus servings of dairy and four or more servings of meat or other nondairy protein a day had the healthiest bones of all. The combination of the two kinds of essential nutrients helped kids' bodies make and maintain the strongest bones.
What This Means to You
During childhood and adolescence, the body uses the mineral calcium to build strong bones — a process that's all but complete by the end of the teen years. But bone calcium starts to decrease in young adulthood and progressive loss of bone occurs as we age, particularly in women.
Teens, especially girls, whose diets don't provide the nutrients to build bones to their maximum potential are at greater risk of developing the bone disease osteoporosis, which boosts the risk of broken bones (fractures) from weakened bones.
Of course, the most common go-to source of bone-building calcium is milk, which also happens to be packed with other important nutrients like protein, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamin D (which helps the body absorb calcium). But downing milk and other dairy products (like cheese and yogurt) isn't the only way to tally up a healthy amount of calcium.
Other calcium-friendly fare includes:
- calcium-fortified products (cereals, tofu, orange juice, soy and rice drinks)
- green leafy vegetables (broccoli, kale, collard greens, Chinese cabbage)
- white or red beans
To help kids get the calcium they need offer snacks, desserts, or packed school lunches with an extra calcium punch:
- whole-grain cracker sandwiches filled with plain or flavored cream cheese
- yogurt topped with cereal, almonds, or dried fruit
- flour tortillas filled with low-fat cheese and lean deli meats
- low-fat or fat-free frozen yogurt topped with fruit
- parfaits with layers of plain yogurt, fruit, and whole-grain cereal
- make-your-own pizzas with an assortment of cheese and kids' topping choices
- favorite soups with white beans added
- salads or cereals topped with slivered almonds and chickpeas
- chili with red beans and cheese
- the beloved standby — ice-cold milk to wash down a couple of favorite cookies or graham crackers
- plain milk with a little added flavoring like chocolate or strawberry syrup (just steer clear of premixed flavored milk — they often contain a lot more calories, sugar, and fat than when you add in the flavored syrup to the milk yourself)
Although you do want your kids to get enough milk, there's one thing to consider — going overboard with milk can contribute to iron deficiency anemia. Why? Because milk is low in iron and may make children less hungry and less likely to eat iron-rich foods. Plus, milk decreases the absorption of iron and can irritate the lining of the intestine in some kids, causing small amounts of bleeding and the gradual loss of iron in the stool (or poop).
That's why you want to make sure your kids get enough milk but that they don't overdo it — try to stick to no more than 16 to 24 fluid ounces a day.
Drinking too much juice and soda is a no-no, too. Both can fill kids' bellies with empty calories. And the sugary beverages can eat away at their tooth enamel. If you do serve juice, make it no more than a serving or two of the 100% fruit varieties — like calcium-fortified orange juice. As for soda, it's wise to skip it altogether.
But what kids do need is nourishing proteins. Lean meats (red meat and dark poultry) are the best sources — and they contain healthy nutrients like iron, too. Of course, kids can get plenty of protein from things like:
- peanut butter (or alternatives like soy nut butter or almond butter and sesame butter for kids who are allergic to peanuts but not tree nuts)
A wholesome, variety-filled diet of protein- and calcium-rich foods — along with a heaping helping of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains — can make all the difference in keeping kids' bodies healthy, from their bones on out.
But don't forget to motivate your youngsters to be physically active every day. Fitness (especially weight-bearing exercises like jumping rope, jogging, and walking) are essential to bone health, too. So, act as an eating and exercising role model to help keep your kids in the best shape they can be, not just today but long after they're out on their own.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2008
Source: "Effects of Average Childhood Dairy Intake on Adolescent Bone Health," Journal of Pediatrics, published online August 14, 2008.