Calcium and Your Kids: Are They Getting Enough? Probably Not.

Did you know that only ten percent of teenage girls in the USA get enough calcium? Even here in China, the average calcium intake is less than half the recommended amounts. Most infants now have no problems with their calcium, thanks to breast milk and formula. But the second, much more depressing point, is that calcium intake drops dramatically after the toddler years. Girls, especially teens, eat much less dairy than boys, putting them at enormous long term risk for osteoporosis and other disease from low calcium.

What about your teenage children — or what about yourself? Are you getting enough calcium in your diet? To answer this question, we first need to know how much calcium we need per day to stay healthy. According to the US National Institute of Health, children 1-3 years need 700 mg per day, 4-8 years need 1,000 mg, and 9-18 years need the most, at 1,300 mg, to help their rapidly growing bones. Most adults 19-50 years old need a bit less, at 1,000 mg.

I recommend that all parents do a bit of math and see how your kids are faring with calcium, especially your girls. If you’re not sure about the calcium levels in your food, you can use the wonderful online Nutrient Data Laboratory database from the USDA. The best choice for calcium remains dairy products. One cup of whole milk has 246 mg, while low-fat milk has a bit more at 264 mg. Yogurt has a similar amount, and cheese is another excellent choice, as one slice (30 g) of cheese may have 200 mg. If your child hates cow’s milk or is lactose intolerant,  at least try to encourage yogurt and cheese. You could also try low-fat or skim chocolate milk, which would be much better than no milk at all! Since breakfast is crucial for a child, a wonderful meal could include yogurt with fresh fruit or berries, plus a slice of cheese on toast.

While dairy is the world’s most common source of calcium, plenty of other foods also have calcium.  Kid-friendly healthy choices include calcium-fortified soy milk, orange juice, cereals and granola bars.One 8 ounce cup of fortified orange juice may have 300 mg of calcium. Other non-dairy sources include fortified rice milk, leafy green vegetables (except spinach), and fish such as salmon or sardines. As a last resort, a daily multivitamin may be reasonable for some.

Another helpful task is to completely eliminate all sodas. You don’t have control over your kids at the mall or a friend’s house, but you certainly can be a role model at home and never buy sodas. Ever. Really! I believe that soda is an extremely unhealthy choice at all ages. There’s also some data showing that soda drinkers have lower bone density, but it’s still controversial why that is. Most likely the soda is just replacing healthy calcium drinks such as milk. But there still remain a host of reasons never to drink soda, especially due to its risk of obesity and diabetes. I would much prefer any child drink a calcium fortified orange or apple juice instead of any soda.

What about your daily routine — how much calcium do you get?


This article first appeared in my monthly column in Beijingkids magazine. You can read all my previous Beijingkids articles here. It’s an abridged version of an earlier article about calcium

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2 thoughts on “Calcium and Your Kids: Are They Getting Enough? Probably Not.”

  1. Dear, Doc.,
    My baby is 8 months old. He is suffering from lactose intolerant since he was born, but he had no symptoms or signs of lactose intolerant during the first six months. However, after the sixth months, diarrhea appeared. According to doctor’s suggestion, we feed him with diarrhoea milk powder instead of breast milk and formula, and diarrhea symptom gets well. However, I really worry about his nutrient balance, especially calcium intake. And your suggestion is to try to encourage yogurt and cheese. Is that fit to my boy? Looking forward to your response.

    1. Lactose intolerance in a newborn is actually very rare, so I just can’t really comment on your baby’s condition without seeing them as a patient. But in general, an 8 month old baby should still be getting most intake through milk, and breast milk still is always best — then infant formula. Sorry, I don’t really understand what “diarrhea milk powder” means. Regular dried milk powder is not sufficient or appropriate for an 8 month old. All 8 month old babies also should be well on their way with trying new foods.

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