“But I don’t want milk! Do I really have to drink it?”
Coercing kids to consume calcium is a daily struggle for some parents. We all know milk is good for bones, but isn’t there another option? What about kids who don’t like milk – or can’t have dairy due to lactose intolerance?
Cleveland Clinic pediatrician David Shafran, MD, understands. Here are the top five things he wants parents to know about milk, calcium and helping kids build strong bones.
1. Every child needs calcium
There’s no way around it. “Calcium is extremely important for bone growth, especially when kids are growing fastest, between ages 9 and 18,” says Dr. Shafran. “In their twenties, they will achieve peak bone mass. The stronger their bones then, the less risk of developing osteoporosis later.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, here’s how much calcium your child should get per day:
- Under 6 months — 200 mg
- 6–12 months — 260 mg
- 1–3 years — 700 mg
- 4–8 years — 1,000 mg
- 9–18 years — 1,300 mg
Calcium is a must for adults as well (1,000–1,200 mg/day), but only to replenish bone that naturally breaks down throughout life. After puberty, you can only maintain bone strength. You can’t increase it, no matter how much calcium you get.
2. Milk and other dairy products are the best sources
“Milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products are the best and easiest ways to consume calcium,” says Dr. Shafran. One cup (8 oz.) of milk has about 300 mg of calcium. So, three cups of milk per day can put tweens and teens close to their recommended daily intake. “Even chocolate milk counts,” says Dr. Shafran. “Ice cream counts, too.”
3. You can get calcium from non-dairy foods
Lactose-free milks, including soymilk and rice milk, are good sources of calcium for kids who are lactose intolerant. Some green, leafy vegetables also contain calcium, as does calcium-fortified orange juice – which is almost as bone-building as milk.
Compare the calcium in these foods:
- Yogurt, plain, low-fat (8 oz.) — 415 mg
- Mozzarella cheese (1.5 oz.) — 333 mg
- Yogurt, fruit, low-fat (8 oz.) — 313–384 mg
- Cheddar cheese (1.5 oz.) — 307 mg
- Milk, nonfat (8 oz.) — 299 mg
- Soy milk, calcium-fortified (8 oz.) — 299 mg
- Milk, 2% (8 oz.) — 293 mg
- Milk, whole (8 oz.) — 276 mg
- Orange juice, calcium-fortified (6 oz.) — 261 mg
- Salmon (3 oz.) — 181 mg
- Cereal, calcium-fortified (1 cup) — 100–1,000 mg
- Turnip greens (½ cup) — 99 mg
- Kale (1 cup) — 94–100 mg
- Ice cream, vanilla (½ cup) — 84 mg
- Bread, white (1 slice) — 73 mg
- Broccoli (½ cup) — 21 mg
4. Calcium supplements usually aren’t necessary
“It’s very rare that I recommend giving a child calcium supplements,” says Dr. Shafran. “Because so many foods are fortified with calcium, it’s hard not to eat it.”
The same is true for vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. While many adults take vitamin D supplements, kids usually get enough through vitamin-fortified foods – or by getting five to 10 minutes of sunshine each day.
5. Weight-bearing exercise is just as important
“Don’t think that diet is the only factor in bone growth and development,” says Dr. Shafran. “Physical activity – particularly exercise that puts stress on your muscles and bones – is equally important.” Weight-bearing exercises include:
- Lifting weights
According to the National Institutes of Health, children and teens should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day and do weight-bearing exercise at least three days per week.
So, if your kids have a bone to pick with milk, don’t worry. They still can get calcium from other sources and strengthen their bones with weight-bearing exercise.
Helping your child or teen learn bone-healthy habits now can build them up for a strong future.