DEAR DOCTOR K:
I have two daughters, ages 8 and 12. They both claim they’re “too old” to drink milk. How can I make sure they get enough calcium?
You’re right to be concerned. Unfortunately, many children don’t get enough calcium, and they need it to build strong bones and teeth.
As your kids grow, they are also growing the bones they will have for the rest of their lives. How strong those bones are by the time they become adults will strongly affect their risk for developing thin bones (osteoporosis) later in life, which can lead to fractures. Most of the bone growth occurs in the teenage years, but getting enough calcium is important for younger kids, too.
Getting enough calcium is not the only important thing in developing strong bones. So is regular exercise. Exercise that puts weight on the bones, like walking, running and hiking, is especially important.
How much calcium should your daughters be getting? For your 8-year-old, aim for 1,000 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day. Your 12-year-old should be getting more, about 1,300 mg of calcium per day.
The best sources of calcium are calcium-rich foods, such as dairy products. Even if your daughters refuse to budge on drinking milk, there are plenty of other options.
Cheese and yogurt are good sources of calcium. If they like yogurt, go for the low-fat or non-fat kind. Although they have less fat, they have as much calcium. There’s also plenty of calcium in many nondairy foods such as sardines and almonds.
Tofu, beans and oranges are good sources of calcium. So are leafy green vegetables such as kale, collard greens, spinach and broccoli. But it takes several cups a day of these vegetables to supply as much calcium as dairy foods. For some kids, that’s a stretch.
You’ll also find plenty of “calcium fortified” foods in the grocery store. These may include some brands of juice, cereal and bread.
To get enough calcium, your kids also should avoid certain foods and beverages that interfere with calcium absorption. Caffeine (found in coffee, tea and sodas), phosphorous (in meat and sodas/soft drinks) and sodium (salt) are unhealthy for bones. Teach your daughters to limit these foods.
Teach also by example. If your daughters see you drinking low-fat milk, how can they say that they’re “too old” to drink it?
We have a lot more information on calcium in our Special Health Report, “Vitamins and Minerals: Choosing the Nutrients You Need to Stay Healthy.”
With careful planning, most children can easily get enough calcium in their daily diets. Think of new ways to incorporate calcium-rich foods into family meals. Make a stir-fry using tofu that’s been processed with calcium, or sprinkle some low-fat shredded cheese on salads.