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Why Children Need Calcium

What’s a simple way to improve your children’s nutrition? Add milk and other calcium-rich foods to their diet.

Nutrition experts say that maintaining a diet with adequate calcium will allow a child to achieve maximum bone density. This will lead to better health throughout life.

Bone Development

Calcium is essential for a strong skeleton. About 99 percent of the body’s calcium lies in the bones and teeth. Although you might think of bones as inert objects, they are not. To function efficiently, the body needs a constant level of calcium in its fluids and tissues. That calcium is drawn from the bones. Bones are living tissues and calcium is constantly removed and redeposited. We also lose calcium daily through growth of our skin, nails, and hair, and by sweating, urination, and excretion.

Calcium is also vital during childhood, when bones are actively growing. During childhood, the amount of calcium deposited in the bones increases as the bones grow. At this critical stage of development, the body needs a great deal of calcium. It also absorbs calcium more effectively than at any other time of life. For this reason, child health experts recommend that children and teens consume extra calcium to help keep their bones strong and healthy through adulthood.

For calcium to be effective in bone growth and development, it is also important that your child get enough vitamin D. This essential vitamin helps the body absorb calcium from food. Children can absorb vitamin D through exposure to sunlight; eating vitamin D–rich foods such as fortified milk and milk products, egg yolks, liver, and some saltwater fish; or taking a vitamin supplement.

Many bone mineral specialists now say that children and teens ages 9 to 18 should consume four servings of calcium-rich foods each day — up from the previously recommended three. By getting enough calcium in early life, children may reduce their risk for accidental bone fractures.

Too Little Calcium

At the same time that research is providing new proof about the link between calcium and the development of children’s bones, national surveys paint a disturbing picture, indicating that many American children are not getting the recommended dietary allowance of calcium.

Here are some statistics:

  • About 60 percent of children ages 3 to 5 get the recommended dietary intake for calcium.

  • About 40 percent of children ages 6 to 11 get the recommended dietary intake for calcium.

  • Only 10 percent of girls and fewer than 30 percent of boys ages 12 to 19 get the recommended dietary intake for calcium.

Clearly, most parents don’t realize that their children are not getting adequate calcium in their diets — with potentially lifelong consequences. Studies suggest that one reason for this inadequate calcium intake may be that soft drinks and juices are replacing milk in children’s diets.

How Much Calcium Do Children Need?

The National Institutes of Health offers the following recommendations for calcium intake. A one-cup (8-ounce) serving of milk equals 300 milligrams (mg) of calcium.

  • Infants up to age 6 months: 210 mg of calcium (2/3 serving a day)

  • Infants from age 6 months to 1 year: 270 mg of calcium (1 serving a day)

  • Children ages 1 to 3 years: 500 mg of calcium (2 servings a day)

  • Children ages 4 to 8 years: 800 mg of calcium (3 servings a day)

  • Children ages 9 to 18 years: 1,300 mg of calcium (4 servings a day)

Some of the most common sources of calcium are from dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Other sources include calcium-fortified soy milk and juices; canned salmon (with bones) and sardines; and dark green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli and turnip greens.

“Nutrition for Everyone: Calcium and Bone Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, April 6, 2011.http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/vitamins/calcium.html. Accessed 2013.

“Calcium: What You Should Know.” National Osteoporosis Foundation. http://www.nof.org/articles/10. Accessed 2013.

“Calcium and Vitamin D: Important at Every Age.” National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, January 2012. www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/bone/bone_health/nutrition/default.asp. Accessed 2013.

“How Much Calcium Do Kids Need?” National Institutes of Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/milk/prob/Pages/calcium_need.aspx. Accessed 2013.

“Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Calcium.” National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, March 14, 2013. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/calcium.asp. Accessed 2010.

“Calcium Is Critical for Lifelong Bone Health.” National Institutes of Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/milk/prob/Pages/bone.aspx. Accessed 2013.

“Optimizing Bone Health and Calcium Intakes of Infants, Children, and Adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report.” F.R. Greer et al. Pediatrics . 2006, vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 578–85. pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/117/2/578?ijkey=00bd0cfe71ae41285b07f756a028e59597eb2dc4. Accessed 2013.

“Newer Perspectives on Calcium Nutrition and Bone Quality.” R.P. Heaney and C.M. Weaver. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2005, vol. 24, no. 6, pp. 574S–81S. Abstract: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07315724.2005.10719506#.UiPdeDZJPTp. Accessed 2013.

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