Milk and other calcium-rich foods are must-have in kids’ diets. After all, calcium is a key building block for strong, healthy bones. But most kids ages 9 to 18 don’t get the recommended 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day.
That’s not surprising when you consider that many kids now drink more soda than milk, which is one of the best sources of calcium. And teens who smoke or drink soda, caffeinated beverages, or alcohol may get even less calcium because those substances interfere with the way the body absorbs and uses calcium.
But at every age, from infancy to adolescence, calcium is one nutrient that kids simply can’t afford to skip.
What Calcium Does
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. Bone calcium begins 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 increases the risk of fractures from weakened bones.
Younger kids and babies who don’t get enough calcium and vitamin D (which aids in calcium absorption) are at increased risk for rickets. Rickets is a bone-softening disease that causes severe bowing of the legs, poor growth, and sometimes muscle pain and weakness.
Calcium also plays an important part in making sure that muscles and nerves work properly and in the release of hormones and enzymes. So if blood calcium levels are low, the body takes calcium from the bones to help these functions.
When kids get enough calcium and physical activity during childhood and the teen years, they can start out their adult lives with the strongest bones possible. For optimal bone health, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends:
- 1 to 3 years old — 700 milligrams of calcium daily
- 4 to 8 years old — 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily
- 9 to 18 years old — 1,300 milligrams of calcium daily
Getting enough calcium is just part of the equation. Kids 1 to 18 years old also should get 600 IU of vitamin D daily. If you don’t think your kids are getting the nutrients needed, talk to your doctor about changing their diet or using vitamin supplements.