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Calcium is the most abundant mineral in the body, and although 99% of it is in the bones and teeth, it plays a critical role in the normal functioning of all body cells. The calcium we get in childhood and adolescence is important for normal growth, developing strong bones and teeth, and ensuring healthy bones later in life, when low bone density (osteoporosis) can lead to high fracture risk.
The new study looked at the amount of dairy consumed by 2- to 18-year-old kids and compared it to amounts recommended by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “MyPyramid” and the Institute of Medicine’s levels for Adequate Intake (AI).
Children from two to three years old met guidelines of 2 cups of milk per day (or the equivalent amount of nonmilk dairy foods), but none of the other age groups got the 2 to 3 cups per day recommended for kids their age.
High-fat dairy foods accounted for one-half of younger kids’ dairy intake and more than one-third of older kids’ dairy intake. Children from two to eight years old were getting the recommended amount of calcium (500 to 800 mg per day), but 9 to 18 year olds did not get the recommended 1,300 mg per day.
Institutions that make and promote public health policies recommend eating plenty of dairy foods for calcium, and according to the researchers of this study, “focusing nutrition guidance efforts on increasing the intake of the low-fat dairy products, with special emphasis on increasing calcium intake in school-age children and adolescents through flavored low-fat milk products, may be beneficial." Diets heavy in whole dairy, however, raise some concerns, because many—such as ice cream and flavored milk and yogurt—have lots of added sugar, and others—such as most cheeses—are high in saturated fat. Some people are unable or choose not to eat dairy foods, and for them, other options can be just as healthy.
For nondairy calcium sources, consider introducing some of the following foods into your family’s diet:
“I try to encourage people to eat and feed their children a very rounded diet, and not to rely solely on dairy for calcium,” said Julianne Forbes, a naturopathic doctor who does nutritional work with children and adults. “Cooking green vegetables helps increase the availability of their calcium, and using a little vinegar on them increases calcium absorption. Not all kids will eat greens, but parents can keep trying, offering other things they might like, such as nori and other seaweeds, sweet potato, toasted sesame seeds, tofu, and figs.”
She also pointed out that getting enough vitamin D—from sun exposure and dietary sources such as cod liver oil—is critical for good calcium absorption and, therefore, strong bones.
(J Pediatr 2007;151:642–6)