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Kids and Their Bones (page 3)

— National Institute of Mental Health
Updated on Apr 14, 2011

How to Read a Food Label for Calcium

The food label, called Nutrition Facts, shows you how much one serving of that food contributes to the total amount of calcium, as well as other nutrients, you need every day. This is expressed as a percent of the daily value (%DV) of calcium that is recommended. For labeling purposes, this is based on the daily calcium recommendation of 1,000 milligrams for people 19 to 50 years old. Since children and teens 9 to 18 years old require more calcium, their %DV target is higher, as indicated below:

Age Recommended calcium intake %DV target
9 – 18 1,300 mg 130%DV
19 – 50 1,000 mg 100%DV

Here is an easy rule of thumb for evaluating the calcium content of a food: 20%DV or more is high for calcium. That means it is a high-calcium food and contributes a lot of calcium to the diet. A food with a calcium content of 5%DV or lower contributes little calcium to the diet and is a low source.

If you want to convert the %DV for calcium into milligrams, you can multiply by 10. For example, if a single-serve container of yogurt lists 30%DV for calcium, it contains 300 mg of calcium (30% times 10).

Getting plenty of high-calcium foods every day is important. To meet their calcium needs, children 9 to 18 years old need about four servings of foods with a 30%DV for calcium (300 mg each) or six to seven servings of foods with a 20%DV for calcium (200 mg each) every day. Foods with a lower %DV for calcium are also important to fill gaps and help ensure that your children get all the calcium they need.

My Daughter Is Constantly Dieting. Should I Be Concerned?

Maintaining proper weight is important to overall health, but so is good nutrition. If your daughter is avoiding all milk and dairy products and severely restricting her food intake, she is probably not getting enough calcium. She needs a more balanced diet that includes low-fat milk products and other calcium-rich foods. Calcium supplements may also be helpful to ensure that she gets enough of this essential nutrient.

You should discuss your concerns with your daughter's doctor. If your daughter is one of up to 3 percent of American girls and young women with eating disorders, the problem is even more serious. Eating disorders, especially anorexia nervosa, can lead to missed or irregular menstrual periods or the complete absence of periods, known as amenorrhea. These are signs of low estrogen, a hormone that is essential for developing bone density and reaching peak bone mass. Girls with anorexia nervosa will often have fractures as a first sign of the disease. Furthermore, reduction in estrogen production in adolescence can increase your daughter's risk of osteoporosis and fracture later in life. In severe cases, girls with eating disorders may even develop osteoporosis in their 20s, and they may find the damage to their bones cannot be reversed later in life.

Look for the following signs and see your daughter's physician if you think your daughter has, or is at risk of developing, an eating disorder:

  • missed menstrual periods after having had them regularly for at least several months
  • extreme and/or unhealthy-looking thinness
  • extreme or rapid weight loss
  • frequent dieting practices such as
    • eating very little
    • not eating in front of others
    • trips to the bathroom following meals
    • preoccupation with thinness
    • focus on low-calorie and diet foods
  • overtraining or excessive exercise

Should I Give My Kids Calcium Supplements?

Experts believe calcium should come from food sources whenever possible. However, if you think your children are not getting adequate calcium from their diet, you may want to consider a calcium supplement. For optimal absorption, no more than 500 mg of calcium should be taken at one time.

How Does Physical Activity Help My Kids' Bones?

Muscles get stronger when we use them. The same idea applies to bones: the more work they do, the stronger they get. Any kind of physical exercise is great for your kids, but the best ones for their bones are weight-bearing activities like walking, running, hiking, dancing, tennis, basketball, gymnastics, and soccer. (Children who tend to play outside will also have higher vitamin D levels.) Swimming and bicycling promote your kids' general health, but are not weight-bearing exercises and will not help build bone density. Organized sports can be fun and build confidence, but they are not the only way to build healthy bones.

The most important thing is for your kids to spend less time sitting and more time on their feet and moving. Alone or with friends, at home or at the park, one of the best gifts you can give your kids is a lifelong love of physical activity.

Bone Building Activities

  • Walking
  • Tennis
  • Running
  • Volleyball
  • Hiking
  • Ice hockey/field hockey
  • Dancing
  • Skiing
  • Soccer
  • Skateboarding
  • Gymnastics
  • In-line skating
  • Basketball
  • Lifting Weights
  • Jumping rope
  • Aerobics

Is It Possible to Get Too Much Exercise?

For most people, including children and teens, the challenge is to get enough physical activity. However, excessive exercise and overtraining, often coupled with restrictive eating, can be a problem, especially for some female athletes and dancers, as well as girls who become obsessive about weight loss. Overtraining, like eating disorders, can result in decreased estrogen and eventually lead to thin bones that break easily.

Years ago, it was not unusual for coaches and trainers to encourage athletes to be as thin as possible for many sports, including dancing, gymnastics, figure skating, running, and diving. Fortunately, many coaches now realize that being too thin is unhealthy and can negatively affect performance as well as lifelong health.

What Else Can My Kids Do Besides Eating Calcium-Rich Foods and Getting Plenty of Weight-Bearing Exercise to Keep Their Bones Healthy?

They should avoid smoking. You probably know that smoking is bad for the heart and lungs, but you may not know that it's harmful to bone tissue. Smoking may harm your bones both directly and indirectly. Several studies have linked smoking to higher risk of fracture. The many dangers associated with smoking make it a habit to be avoided.

You may think it's too early to worry about smoking, but the habit typically starts during childhood or adolescence. In fact, most people who use tobacco products start before they finish high school. The good news? If your kids finish high school as nonsmokers, they will probably stay that way for life.

My Son Has Asthma and Takes a Steroid Medication to Control It. His Doctor Said This Might Affect His Bones. Is There Anything We Can Do About This?

Asthma itself does not pose a threat to bone health, but some medications used to treat the disease can have a negative effect on bones when taken for a long time. Corticosteroids, a type of anti-inflammatory medication, are often prescribed for asthma. These medications can decrease calcium absorbed from food, increase calcium loss from the kidneys, and shrink a child's bone bank account.

Kids with asthma need to take special care of their bones, making sure to get enough calcium and weight-bearing exercise. Some health-care providers recommend extra calcium each day: between 1,000 and 1,500 mg. Many people think milk and dairy products - great sources of calcium and vitamin D - trigger asthma attacks, but this is probably true only if your child is allergic to dairy foods. Unfortunately, this misconception often results in an unnecessary avoidance of dairy products, which is especially risky for kids with asthma, who need extra calcium during their bone-building years.

Since exercise can often trigger an asthma attack, many people with asthma avoid weight-bearing physical activities that strengthen bone. Kids with asthma may be able to exercise more comfortably in an air-conditioned place, such as a school gym or health club.

Talk to your child's doctor for more information about protecting his bones while he is taking asthma medications.

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