Milk and other calcium-rich foods are a 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.
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:
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.
Of course, milk and other dairy products are good sources of calcium, and most contain added vitamin D, which is also important for bone health.
But don't overlook other healthy calcium-fortified foods, including orange juice, soy products, and bread. Here are some dairy and nondairy products that provide quite a bit of this vital nutrient:
|Serving Size||Food or Beverage||Calcium|
|8 ounces (237 milliliters)||milk||300 milligrams|
|8 ounces (237 milliliters)||calcium-fortified orange juice||300 milligrams|
|2 ounces (57 grams)||American cheese||300 milligrams|
|1½ ounces (43 grams)||cheddar cheese||300 milligrams|
|4 ounces (113 grams)||tofu fortified with calcium||260 milligrams|
|6 ounces (177 milliliters)||yogurt||225 milligrams|
|½ cup (118 milliliters)||collard greens|
(cooked from frozen)
|4 ounces (113 grams)||ice cream, soft serve||120 milligrams|
|½ cup (118 milliliters)||white beans||110 milligrams|
|1 ounce (28 grams)||almonds||80 milligrams|
|½ cup (118 milliliters)||bok choy||80 milligrams|
|½ cup (118 milliliters)||rhubarb, cooked||75 milligrams|
|4 ounces (113 grams)||cottage cheese||70 milligrams|
|½ cup (118 milliliters)||red beans||40 milligrams|
|½ cup (118 milliliters)||broccoli, cooked||35 milligrams|
Milk and other dairy products are among the best and most convenient sources of calcium you can find. But who should get what kind of milk and when?
The good news is that all milk — from skim to whole — contains about the same amount of calcium per serving. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend 2 cups (473 milliliters) of milk per day for kids 2 to 3 years old, 2½ cups (591 milliliters) for kids 4 to 8 years old, and 3 cups (710 milliliters) for kids 9 and older.
Some kids can't or won't consume dairy products. Here are some ways to make sure they get enough calcium:
Kids with lactose intolerance: Kids with lactose intolerance don't have enough of the intestinal enzyme (lactase) that helps digest the sugar (lactose) in dairy products. These kids may have cramps or diarrhea after drinking milk or eating dairy products.
Fortunately, low-lactose and lactose-free dairy products are available, as are lactase drops that can be added to dairy products. Also ask your doctor about tablets that kids with lactose intolerance can take that allow them to eat dairy products and thus benefit from the calcium they contain. Hard, aged cheeses (such as cheddar) are also lower in lactose, and yogurts that contain active cultures are easier to digest and much less likely to cause lactose problems.
Kids with milk allergy: The proteins in milk might cause allergic reactions in some people. Casein is the principal protein in cow's milk, accounting for about 80% of the total milk proteins. Casein is what makes up the curd that forms when milk is left to sour. The remaining 20% of cow's milk proteins are contained in the whey, the watery part that's left after the curd is removed. Someone may be allergic to proteins in either the casein or the whey parts of milk and sometimes even to both.
Talk to your doctor if you think your child may be allergic to milk. Formula-fed infants with a cow's milk allergy may need to be switched to soy-based or hypoallergenic formula. For older kids, good alternatives to milk and milk products include calcium-enriched rice or soy milk (if soy is tolerated), vegan products (such as vegan cheese), and other soy-based (again, if soy is tolerated) or rice-based frozen desserts, sorbets, puddings, and ice pops.
Vegetarian kids: Parents of kids who are ovo-vegetarians (they eat eggs, but no dairy products) or vegans (they eat only foods from plant sources) may be concerned about whether a dairy-free diet can supply enough calcium.
Although it can be more of a challenge to get the recommended amounts of calcium in a vegetables-only diet, good sources of calcium include dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, chickpeas, and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, soy and rice drinks, and cereals.
Teens who think dairy products are fattening: Adolescent girls, in particular, may decide to diet and avoid eating dairy foods they think will make them fat. But it's important for your teen to understand that an 8-ounce (240-milliliter) glass of skim milk has only 80 calories and zero fat and supplies one quarter of a teen girl's recommended daily calcium intake.
In fact, people who eat diets rich in calcium may actually weigh less and have less body fat. In one study, adolescent girls who had an extra 300 milligrams of calcium each day, which is equivalent to one glass of milk, weighed up to 2 pounds (907 grams) less than girls who didn't get the extra calcium.
You also can offer low-fat and nonfat dairy products as healthy alternatives to whole-milk products — and instead of sodas and sugary fruit drinks that have very little nutritional value. If your teen drinks juice, offer calcium-fortified 100% fruit juices (not too much juice, though, as that can contribute a lot of sugar and calories).
Also talk to your teen about osteoporosis and the importance of dairy products and other calcium-rich foods in a healthy diet.
Of course, some picky eaters just don't like the idea of dairy products. To make sure they get enough calcium, try these creative tactics.
Add cheese to meals and snacks:
Put some pizzazz in regular milk by adding a touch of strawberry or chocolate syrup (which doesn't add a significant amount of sugar or calories). Steer clear of store-bought flavored milk drinks, though, which can be packed with unnecessary sugar.
For breakfast, add fresh fruit or unsweetened apple butter to cottage cheese or yogurt.
For dessert or an afternoon snack:
Serve nondairy foods that still pack a calcium punch:
Although it's best for kids to get the calcium they need through a calcium-rich diet, sometimes it's not possible. Discuss calcium supplements with your doctor if you're concerned that your kids aren't getting enough calcium.
Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, so it's important that kids have enough of this nutrient too. Made by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight, vitamin D also is found in fortified foods, fish, and egg yolks.
Also, don't forget to motivate kids to be involved in regular physical activities and exercise, which are very important to bone health. Weight-bearing exercises such as jumping rope, running, and walking can also help develop and maintain strong bones.
Most of all, be a role model and enjoy low-fat dairy products and other calcium-rich foods — you could probably use the calcium, too!
Reviewed by: Jane M. Benton, MD, MPH
Date reviewed: June 2014
|U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.|
|Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Offering nutrition information, resources, and access to registered dietitians.|
|Powerful Girls Have Powerful Bones - The National Bone Health Campaign This site, designed for girls ages 9 to 12, teaches how to get and keep strong, healthy bones for life.|
|The National Osteoporosis Foundation This site educates the public about osteoporosis, prevention, and news and stories affecting bone health.|
|ChooseMyPlate.gov ChooseMyPlate.gov provides practical information on how to follow the U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It includes resources and tools to help families lead healthier lives.|
|Milk Matters: Calcium Education from the National Institutes of Health Milk Matters is a public health education campaign launched by the National Institutes of Health to promote calcium consumption among tweens and teens, especially during the ages of 11 to 15, a time of critical bone growth.|
|U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) The USDA works to enhance the quality of life for people by supporting the production of agriculture.|
|Minerals Just like vitamins, minerals help your body grow, develop, and stay healthy. Find out more about minerals in this article for kids.|
|Mineral Chart Your body needs minerals to work properly. They boost the immune system, are essential for normal growth and development, and help cells and organs do their jobs.|
|Figuring Out Food Labels Find out how to make healthy food choices for your family by reading food labels.|
|Flash Interactive: Body Basics: Bones Where would you be without your bones? Learn more about the skeletal system in this article for kids.|
|Vitamins and Minerals Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that the body needs to work properly. They boost the immune system, promote normal growth and development, and help cells and organs do their jobs.|
|What's a Vegetarian? You probably know a vegetarian doesn't eat meat, but did you know there's more than just one kind of vegetarian? Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Becoming a Vegetarian People choose vegetarianism for a variety of reasons. This article describes different types of vegetarianism and provides advice on ways for vegetarians to get all the nutrients they need.|
|Bones, Muscles, and Joints Without bones, muscles, and joints, we couldn't stand, walk, run, or even sit. The musculoskeletal system supports our bodies, protects our organs from injury, and enables movement.|
|A to Z: Osteoporosis Mostly affecting older people, osteoporosis is a disease that weakens the bones, causing them to become brittle and easily fractured.|
|Milk Allergy in Infants Almost all infants are fussy at times. But some are excessively fussy because they have an allergy to the protein in cow's milk, which is the basis for most commercial baby formulas.|
|Does Skim Milk Provide the Same Nutrients as Whole Milk? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|When Should Kids Switch to Skim Milk? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Eating During Pregnancy To eat well during pregnancy, your extra calories should come from nutritious foods that contribute to your baby's growth and development.|
|Do I Need to Drink Milk? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Vitamin D Vitamin D has been called the new "wonder vitamin," but most teens aren't getting enough. Find out why vitamin D is important and how to get the right amount.|
|A to Z: Vitamin D Deficiency Vitamin D deficiency is a condition that happens when a person isn't getting enough vitamin D, which is needed for strong bones and overall health.|
|Your Bones Where would you be without your bones? Learn more about the skeletal system in this article for kids.|
|Bones, Muscles, and Joints Our bones, muscles, and joints form our musculoskeletal system and enable us to do everyday physical activities.|
|Healthy Eating Good nutrition and a balanced diet help kids grow up healthy. Here's how to improve nutrition and encourage smart eating habits.|
|Osteoporosis Osteoporosis means that someone's bones are weakened. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Figuring Out Food Labels The food label on a food package is a lot like the table of contents in a book - it tells you exactly what the food contains. Read our article for kids for more about food labels.|
|Lactose Intolerance If you have lactose intolerance, you're not alone. Millions of Americans have the condition. Check out these tips on dealing with lactose intolerance.|
|Soy Foods and Health You may have heard about soy foods in the news, including claims that soy prevents diseases such as cancer and heart disease. So what is the story on soy?|
|Breastfeeding vs. Formula Feeding Making a decision to breastfeed or formula feed your baby is a personal one. There are some points to consider to help you decide which option is best for you and your baby.|
|Calcium Your parents were right to make you drink milk when you were little. It's loaded with calcium, a mineral vital for building strong bones and teeth.|
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