How to Optimize Your Child's Bone Health

Filed under: Babies, Mealtime, Development/Milestones: Babies, Nutrition: Health, Teens, Tweens, Big Kids, Preschoolers, Toddlers Preschoolers, Dear Karla

Dear Karla,
I grew up with the message that I had to drink lots of milk so that I'd get enough calcium for healthy, strong bones. I know that in today's society, dairy items are not necessarily as popular as they once were, and my family does not eat any products made from cow's milk. Instead, we opt for soy. With that in mind, how can I be sure my children are getting the right nutrients so that their bones do not suffer? I've heard that vitamin D may be one option? Any info would be a great help.
Thanks, Brenda


Hi Brenda,
Your statement that dairy products aren't as popular today as they were in previous generations is quite true. Where we once had limited options for beverages, it seems like these days, we have too many -- including juice, pop, sports drinks, vitamin-infused water, caffeinated energy drinks, and don't forget about all the latte-like beverages in every coffee shop and convenience store! It is easy to see how the old days of milk (whether it was from a cow, a goat, soy or almonds), have been bumped to the side and replaced with high-sugar and caffeine instead. What's a parent to do?
In order to ensure optimal growth of your children's bones, there are three big factors to consider:

1. Calcium: About 99 percent of the body's calcium is stored in bones and teeth, where it acts as a support for the actual structure. Bone goes through a cycle of remodeling, where matter known as osteoblasts are responsible for building and osteoclasts are responsible for removing old bone. As we age, the bone breakdown process exceeds that of bone building, causing our bones to become brittle and lose density.

2. Vitamin D: Vitamin D is responsible for promoting the absorption of calcium into the bloodstream where it can then help bone with mineralization. Vitamin D is an essential nutrient needed for the normal bone process of remodeling. Without sufficient vitamin D the bones will become more thin and brittle, which increases risk of osteoporosis and fractures.

3. Exercise: Physical activity that puts stress on the body (and bones) is important, as this will increase the bone-building process. Think of it this way - if you do no physical activity and spend more time at the computer or on a chair, your bones are not being challenged and so your body says 'why do I need to make the bones stronger... nothing is happening.' If you do become physically active (in a Resistance way) - you then send a signal to your entire body from the physical stress and it then realizes it must pick up its strength which encourages more bone to be built to sustain the stress on it.

Three modern issues that work against bone health include:

  • Our diet: The quality of the beverages that we consume on a daily basis plays a significant role in our overall health and well-being. Calcium intakes tend to be very low with the new "milk replacement" drinks mentioned previously.
  • Our environment: Living so far north of the equator does not allow sufficient amounts of vitamin D to be produced naturally in our skin, making it necessary for us to take it as a supplement (which not everyone does).
  • Our lifestyle: About two thirds of the population is overweight or obese (as youth are closer to 30 percent), and excess fat on the body actually grabs hold of vitamin D so it is not allowed into circulation and cannot benefit our bones. A study released in 2010 revealed that obese teenagers who carried more visceral fat (that surrounds the internal organs) had a lower bone density, compared to teens of a normal weight.
Non-Milk Sources of Calcium
If your family is like Brenda's and does not consume dairy products from cows, rest assured that there are still many options available to you. Calcium is essential, and can be found in several non-dairy food items:

  • 1/2 cup broccoli (cooked) = 35 mg
  • 1/2 cup spinach (cooked) = 120 mg
  • 1/2 cup mashed sweet potatoes = 44 mg
  • 1/2 cup white beans = 113 mg
  • 1 cup soy milk = 300mg
How Much Calcium Do My Kids Need?
The calcium recommendations for children are as follows:

  • 500 mg for 1-3 yrs
  • 800 mg for 4-8 yrs
  • 1300 mg for 9-18 yrs
Vitamin D is a bit trickier, as Health Canada's recommended amounts are considered "outdated" by many health care professionals. The reason why the amounts are being questioned is because such a high percentage of people (both young and old) are still suffering from conditions like osteoporosis and hormonal cancers, despite consuming the supposed "recommended amount" of vitamin D.

Health Canada recommends 200 IU for those two to 50 years of age, and sets the tolerable upper level intake at 2000 IU a day for those one year and older. Babies that are breastfed should receive 400 IU until their diet reaches 400 IU a day. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends all adults take a supplement of 1000 IU a day during the fall and winter, and all year round for those who have dark skin or are older than 50. They do not specify a number for children as their cancer research has been done with adults only.

Personally, I agree that Health Canada's numbers are outdated and that 1000 IU per day is a safe amount to aim for. For children, you can always consider halving vitamin D tablets, or administering vitamin D drops.

Karla Heintz, B.Sc., is a nutrition educator and author of Picky? Not Me, Mom! A Parents' Guide to Children's Nutrition. If you have a question you would like answered please leave it in the comment section below. Thanks!

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.