Teens and Calcium – 8 Things to Remember

I often have to remind my teen to drink milk and force yogurt or cheese for a snack.  As teenagers, kids become more picky about the foods they eat and are not easily influenced by parental suggestions. For me, it’s not just the hassle of trying to come up with ‘new’ and ‘interesting’ foods every day, but I worry about making sure she meets her nutritional requirements.

Adolescence is the transition period between childhood and adulthood, a time of life that begins at puberty. For girls, puberty typically occurs between ages 12 and 13, while for boys it occurs between ages 14 and 15. Adolescence is a phase of increased nutritional demands on a kid because puberty is one of the fastest growth periods of a person’s life. Add to that participation in sports, the demands at school, and extracurricular activities, teenage years can easily become a setup for nutritional deficiencies. Thinking carefully about nutrition is not just about the calories but also about ensuring adequate protein, calcium and iron intake. 

1. Why is Calcium so important for teens? Calcium is the main mineral that strengthens bonesTeenager enjoying a fresh glass of milk and this is very important during adolescence when teens are going through their growth spurt. People reach their maximum bone density during adolescence and gradually lose bone mass the rest of their lives. By age 17, our kids will have already established more than75 % of their adult bone mass.When adolescents get enough calcium during the teen years, they can start out their adult lives with the strong bones and significantly reduce their risk for fractures as an adult. Inadequate calcium intake during adolescence and young adulthood puts individuals at risk for developing osteoporosis later in life. However, according to recent statistics 9 out of 10 teenage girls and 7 out of 10 teenage boys do NOT get enough calcium in their diet.

2. How much calcium does your teen really need?  Nutrition guidelines recommend that children ages 9 through 18 get about 1300 mg or 4 servings of calcium every day, but how much calcium does that really mean? A serving size of calcium is about 300 milligrams. This is the same as an 8 ounce glass of milk or calcium fortified juice, 1 cup of yogurt or 2 slices of American cheese.

3. What are the dietary sources of calcium? While whole milk and dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, a lot of “non-dairy” foods can give you your calcium supply, for example a cup of white beans, broccoli or tofu. Food labels can also tell you how much calcium is in one serving of food. Look at the % Daily Value next to the calcium number on the food label.  Green vegetables such as spinach, collard greens, turnips, cabbage and kale are excellent sources of calcium.

4. What about the teens who are ‘careful’ about their fat intake? Many adolescents may decide to avoid eating dairy foods they think will make them fat. It is important to let them know that fat-free and low-fat milk are excellent ways to get enough calcium without adding a lot of extra fat to their diet. An 8 ounce glass of skim milk has only 80 calories and zero fat and supplies 1/3 of a teenager’s recommended daily calcium intake. You can also offer low-fat and nonfat dairy products as healthy alternatives to whole milk products. Orange juice fortified with calcium is an excellent alternative, especially instead of sodas and sugary fruit drinks that have very little nutritional value.

5. What if your child is lactose intolerant? In cases of children who are lactose intolerant and can’t drink milk, there are plenty of other ways to get your calcium. These include fortified soy milk, fortified juice, or Lactaid milk (milk with a lactase enzyme additive). You may also take lactase enzyme tablets before eating dairy products to help digest the lactose sugar in the milk. Some people who are lactose intolerant can tolerate having milk or other dairy products in smaller amounts.

6. What’s another good reason to limit soda intake? Just as important as drinking milk, it is also important to look at the other beverages your teenager consumes. Soda intake is not only empty calories but also counterproductive to other nutritional demands in a teen’s life. Most teens drink more soda than milk which is also concerning because soda and other caffeinated beverages can interfere with the way the body absorbs and uses calcium. According to a Harvard study, 9th and 10th grade girls who drink soda have three times the risk of bone fractures compared with those who don’t drink carbonated beverages. Worse, the most physically active soda slurpers put themselves at five times the risk of abstainers.

7. What about Calcium supplements? While it’s best for kids to get the calcium they need through a calcium-rich diet, sometimes this may not be possible. If you’re concerned that your teen isn’t getting enough calcium, discuss calcium supplements with your teen’s doctor. Calcium carbonate and calcium citrate supplements are good choices. Most calcium supplements have between 200 and 500 milligrams of calcium. Remember, your goal is 1,300 milligrams of per day. When taking more than one supplement per day, it is best to take them at different times of the day because your body can only absorb about 500 milligrams of calcium at a time.

8. Is it only about the intake of calcium? Consuming enough calcium is not the only way to build strong bones. Be sure to encourage your child to be involved in regular physical activities and exercise, which is a very important factor in building healthy bones. Weight-bearing exercises such as jumping rope, jogging, or walking can also help develop strong bones by forcing your bones to work harder and build up bone mass. It is recommended to do 30 minutes of weight bearing exercise at least 3 times a week. Bones are very similar to muscles and you have to use them regularly to help them build up strength.

                         You have most likely seen the “milk mustache” on your favorite star, but are you sporting your own?  Make a strong case for calcium and try to incorporate these changes for the whole family because chances are you could use some extra calcium too!

Shobha Bhaskar, M.D. About Shobha Bhaskar, M.D.

Shobha Bhaskar, MD is a pediatric hospitalist with St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, who also sees patients at Children's Hospital facilities at Missouri Baptist Medical Center and Progress West Healthcare. Connect with Dr. Bhaskar on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs and .

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