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Calcium Sources for Kids

The key to building healthy bones for life

Who would have thought that osteoporosis — the brittle-bone disease that afflicts 10 million Americans over age 50 — is something you need to worry about for your kids? Not Maribel Burke. A few years ago, her 9-year-old daughter, Christina, mysteriously fractured each arm twice within 18 months. "The first time she was just catching a kickball," Burke says. It happened again when another child bumped into her on a slide. As one cast came off, another went on.

Calcium Sources

Drinking milk and eating dairy products are the best ways to get your daily calcium, but these foods help kids inch up to their recommended daily allowance (RDA), too.

  • Almonds, 1 oz: 9% RDA
  • Broccoli, cooked, ½ cup: 6% RDA
  • Canned salmon, 1 cup: 30% RDA
  • Edamame, ½ cup: 19% RDA
  • Flour tortilla, 8% RDA
  • Honey Nut Cheerios Milk ’n Cereal Bar: 31% RDA
  • Kix cereal,  1¹/3  cup: 19% RDA
  • Sunflower seeds, 1 cup: 11% RDA
  • Tofu (calcium sulfate–fortified), ½ cup: 26% RDA
  • Total Raisin Bran, 1 cup: 125% RDA
  • Waffles (calcium-fortified), 2: 13% RDA
  • White beans, cooked, 1 cup: 10% RDA
  • Wonder Kids Calcium-Fortified Bread, 1 slice: 25% RDA

After putting Christina through a bone-density study, Maribel received the shocking news: Her daughter had osteoporosis.

The bone-study doctor was taken aback, too — until Burke explained that her pediatrician had told Christina to stay away from dairy products as a hedge against the migraines she had been suffering. Once Christina started drinking milk again and taking a supplement containing calcium and vitamin D, her bone density improved, and she hasn't had a fracture since.

This may sound like an extreme example, but a surprising number of kids today have weak bones that are fracturing at alarming rates. The most recent study on thetopic found that kids 8 to 14 in the Mayo Clinic’s hometown of Rochester, MN, suffered broken bones 41 percent more frequently than children did in the previous 20-year span.

"Kids are more calcium-deficient than ever before," says lead researcher A. The reason? Children are drinking way too much soda and juice and not nearly enough milk.

Calcium and vitamin D (which helps the body absorb calcium) are essential for children to develop strong, healthy bones. Nearly half of preschoolers and more than 60 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds fail to meet their daily calcium requirements, a lack that sets them up for a bone-density deficit in the future. But take the following steps now, and there’s still time to turn things around.

 

Get milk!

Make sure your kids get the amount of calcium the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says they need daily for their age:

Calcium for Lactose-Intolerant Kids

Kids who get tummy-aches after they drink milk may not be able to digest its natural sugar, called lactose. One out of four people are lactose-intolerant, and it's especially common among African Americans, Asians and Hispanics. But according to the AAP, most lactose-sensitive kids can ultimately drink regular milk without getting cramps or diarrhea. Here's how to introduce milk into their lactose-intolerant diets. 

Serve your child milk at mealtime, since food helps spread out lactose absorption. Start with a few ounces on cereal, then gradually increase the amount.

If he still can't stomach it, buy lactose-free milk (which costs about $1 more per half gallon than regular milk and tastes different) or give him tablets or drops containing lactase, an enzyme that breaks down the sugar.

Even if your child can't drink milk, he may be able to tolerate hard cheeses (which have lower lactose levels than milk) and yogurt with active cultures (which aid digestion).

Try calcium-fortified soy or rice milk. But keep in mind that these beverages provide only 45 percent of the calcium listed on the label because the calcium added to these products separates and settles as sludge at the bottom. 

  • 1 to 3: 500mg
  • 4 to 8: 800mg
  • 9 & up: 1,300mg

To reach these thresholds, kids should drink at least three 8-ounce glasses of vitamin D–fortified milk per day — which means you should serve milk (or a dairy equivalent, such as 6 ounces of cheese) at every meal. As a calcium source, milk has an edge over sugar-laden, calcium-fortified beverages like orange juice and it also contains protein and essential bone-strengthening vitamins and minerals like riboflavin, phosphorus and zinc.

If your kids don't like plain milk, try flavored varieties. A Journal of the American Dietetic Association study showed that children who drank chocolate, vanilla or strawberry milk took in almost 7 ounces more per day than those who drank regular milk.

Drink milk yourself

"Getting enough calcium is a family affair," says Stephanie Smith, RD, of the National Dairy Council. Setting an example for girls is especially critical. Studies show that daughters whose moms drink milk regularly consume more of it themselves — and drink less soda.

Choose a supplement

It's best to get calcium and vitamin D from food sources, but if your child isn't consuming enough of either, consider a supplement. AAP guidelines recommend  a vitamin D supplement for kids who drink less than one daily quart of milk.

Get daily exercise

As muscles contract during high-intensity activity, tendons tug against kids’ bones to stimulate growth. The latest stats say preschoolers get just half of the 60 minutes of daily exercise recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. Get the kids out to the park or sign them up for sports, dance or martial arts. Just 15 extra minutes of activity a day can increase bone strength significantly.

Sandra Gordon is a nationally published freelance writer.

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