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Calcium for Children and Teens


Why is calcium so important?

Calcium is the main mineral that strengthens bones. Getting enough calcium is important for everyone, but for children and teens, it is critical. These are the years that bones are growing fast and calcium is being stored in the bone to make them strong. Most of the stored calcium for bone strength is laid down by age 17. Helping your children get into the daily habit of eating enough calcium-rich foods decreases their risk for weak bones later in life.

How much calcium does my child need?

Unfortunately our children and teenagers are not getting enough calcium. National nutrition surveys show that most teen girls and almost half of teen boys are not getting the recommended amount of calcium they need. The amount of calcium in food is measured in milligrams (mg). For example, 1 cup of milk has about 300 mg of calcium in it.

The following are the recommended amounts of milk a child should drink every day in order to meet most of their calcium needs. Other dairy products, calcium fortified and non-dairy sources of calcium can make up the difference.

1 to 3 years old

  • About 1 and 1/2 cups of whole milk (500 mg of calcium) per day. Children 2 years of age and older can begin drinking low-fat or non-fat milk.

4 to 8 years old

  • About 2 cups of fat free or low-fat milk (800 mg of calcium) per day

9 to 18 years old

  • About 3 cups of fat free or low-fat milk (1300 mg of calcium) per day

The calcium in 1 cup of milk is equivalent to the amount of calcium found in 1 cup of yogurt, 1 and 1/2 ounces of cheese, or 2 ounces of processed cheese.

Children from 1 through 18 years of age should get 400 IU of vitamin D per day. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.

What dairy foods are good sources of calcium?

Milk is one of the best sources of calcium. Babies under 1 year old should drink breast milk or iron-fortified formula. Children 1 to 2 years old should drink whole milk because certain fats are needed for development during this early stage. Between the ages of 2 and 5 years, gradually switch from whole milk to low-fat milk or fat-free milk. There are plenty of dairy foods other than plain milk that are great sources of calcium. Try to set a good example by eating foods high in calcium yourself. Here are some ideas for adding calcium to your family's diet.

  • Have low-fat or nonfat milk, cottage cheese with fruit, and yogurt available for snacks.
  • Cook hot cereals with milk instead of water.
  • Serve yogurt smoothies instead of juice.
  • Add yogurt to lunches or use as a dip when having a fruit snack.
  • Add lean shredded cheese to baked potatoes, vegetables, soups, and salads.
  • Use milk when making cream soups instead of water.
  • Serve flavored milk or hot chocolate for an evening treat.
  • Use Parmesan cheese topping for Italian dishes. A 2 tbsp. serving adds about 140 mg. of calcium.
  • Serve a healthy vegetable pizza made with low-fat cheese.
  • Serve lean mozzarella string cheese with crackers and fruit for a snack.
  • Make puddings with milk.

Aren't dairy products too high in fat to be healthy?

Whole milk dairy products are high in saturated fat and calories. Products with 1% or 2% fat still contain some saturated fat and cholesterol, but less than whole milk products. The lower the fat the better. Nonfat products are great because the fat and cholesterol are skimmed off leaving a food high in protein, vitamins and minerals. You get the same nutritional benefits without the excess fat, cholesterol, and calories. Look for non-fat or low-fat milk and yogurt in the store. Choose reduced fat cheeses (available in all varieties, including mozzarella, Swiss, cottage and ricotta cheeses), and lower fat milk desserts such as frozen yogurt and low or non-fat ice cream. Non-fat buttermilk, plain yogurt, and cottage and ricotta cheeses can be used as substitutes for high fat ingredients, such as cream and sour cream in recipes.

What if my child can't or won't eat dairy foods?

Fortunately, there are nondairy products that are good sources of calcium. Several brands of calcium fortified juices, cereals, and soy foods are now available. Green vegetables, such as broccoli and kale, and fish with soft, edible bones, provide calcium too. Try adding some of these foods to your child's diet.

  • Calcium-fortified citrus juices
  • Calcium-fortified soy milk in several flavors
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Sardines and salmon with eatable bones (kids often like salmon cakes)
  • Calcium-processed tofu
  • Pinto beans (or any dried bean) as a side dish or on salads
  • Bean burritos
  • Calcium-fortified waffles or pancakes
  • Calcium-fortified breakfast cereals (topped with rice milk or fortified soy milk)

Many food products, like cereal, list the amount of calcium per serving on the box. Food labels list calcium as a percentage of the Daily Value (DV) based on 1,000 mg of calcium per day. For example, a food product listing 30% calcium per serving would provide 300mg of calcium. Look for foods that provide 10% or more of the daily value for calcium. The calcium from some nondairy choices, such as vegetables, beans, and soy, is not absorbed as well as that from dairy products. Although these foods make it easier to meet daily calcium needs, it still can be hard to get enough without dairy products. It is best to get calcium from a variety of sources. Ask your healthcare provider or dietitian if your child should take a calcium supplement.

Are calcium-fortified foods healthy and safe?

While many fortified products are good supplements, foods such as candy, flavored waters, and soda pop often have little or no nutritional value, other than the calcium. They are snack foods and should be eaten in limited amounts. Choose fortified foods that are already nutritious, such as whole grain cereals, breads, 100% fruit juices, or soy products.

Read labels. More does not always mean better. Calcium is best absorbed in amounts of 500 mg or less per serving. Keep your child's calcium needs in mind when you choose fortified products. Although rare, it is possible to get too much calcium through fortified foods.

The calcium in fortified fruit juices is well absorbed. Three 8 oz cups of fruit juice contain about the same amount of calcium and calories as three 8 oz cups of low fat milk.

What affects the body's ability to absorb calcium?

Vitamin D increases calcium absorption. Getting enough sunlight and choosing foods (mostly dairy products) fortified with Vitamin D is important.

These things can make it harder for your body to absorb calcium:

  • Too much fiber in the diet. This is more of a concern for those with low amounts of calcium in the diet. Take calcium supplements or fortified foods 2 hours before or after eating 100% bran products. Soaking beans in water and discarding the liquid before cooking can also help.
  • Phosphates (in soft drinks). Negative effects may be from replacing milk with soft drinks.
  • Some medicines, such as tetracycline (an antibiotic).
  • Caffeine (found in some soft drinks, energy drinks, tea, and coffee). Children and teens who drink these products instead of milk often don't get enough calcium.

These things can cause you to lose calcium:

  • Eating a lot of protein foods (such as meats, poultry and eggs). The more protein is eaten, the more the calcium is lost. As long as your child's diet is balanced and contains enough calcium, this should not cause a problem.
  • Eating a lot of salt. The more salt in the diet, the more calcium lost. Limit the salt in your child's diet. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and getting enough calcium can help to offset the negative effects of a diet too high in salt.

Written by Terri Murphy, RD, CDE for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-01-27
Last reviewed: 2010-01-11

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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