Calcium Requirements for Kids' Growing Bones

Calcium Requirements for Kids' Growing Bones

Over the last two decades women have learned about the profound problems of osteoporosis and inadequate calcium intake. Unfortunately, for most people, it is too little, too late. This is because the need for increased calcium acquisition and storage begins very early in life - especially in the pre-adolescent years.

While many parents recall the admonitions to eat the four major food groups and to drink plenty of whole milk, these recommendations have fallen into disuse and disfavor for many legitimate reasons. However, in the US the decrease in children’s milk intake has created a serious shortfall in the amount of calcium that kids have an opportunity to obtain.

To maintain strong bones, the overall goal is to simply:

  • Eat or drink the recommended amount of calcium-containing food
  • Allow maximal absorption from the gut
  • Store as much calcium in the bone as one can
  • Prevent losses from the bone over the years

To attain the above goals, most children need to increase the amount of calcium they eat or drink on a daily basis to meet the daily-recommended requirements.

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Recommended Calcium Intake for Children Ages 4 to 8

While there are no formal guidelines for prepubertal children, calcium requirements for children 4 to 8 years of age are estimated to be about 800 mg/day . This requirement is easily achieved by drinking three 8-oz glasses of milk per day, each containing 300 mg. Milk alternatives made from soy and rice are quite acceptable if they are vitamin and calcium fortified to match the nutritional content of milk.

For more reticent children, orange juice is an alternative, although it is less optimal as it contains neither the supplemental Vitamin D (a requirement for calcium absorption by the body) nor the protein and fat that milk does.

Unfortunately, this young age group also seems to retain less calcium in their bones than pubertal children do, which makes getting sufficient calcium intake critical.

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Recommended Calcium Intake for Children Ages 9 to 18

Starting at age 9 the recommended adequate calcium intake increases to 1300 mg per day for the next 9 years. Unfortunately, a survey in 1994 by the US Department of Agriculture found that there is a serious deficiency in the amount of calcium most children are getting:

  • Children ages 9 to 13 averaged less than 1000 mg per day, with girls getting a paltry 800.
  • In teens ages 14 to 18, daily intake of calcium in boys increased to just over 1000 mg per day, and for girls decreased to less than 700 mg per day.

According to this study, the vast majority of girls actually were taking in only a little more than half the recommended amount of calcium per day. While it may seem pointless to mention the gender differences, the importance is magnified by the long-term impact of calcium wasting and usage in girls as they mature and bear children.

Given that calcium is better absorbed and stored during the pubertal years, one would prefer to take advantage of this efficiency and take in more calcium.

Instead, it appears that teens are not using this period in their lives to invest in their later health. The good news is that studies of bone mineral content, a reflection of density and calcium stores, revealed that even small increases in milk consumption can lead to significant improvement in bone mineral content.

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Article written by: Julian Huang, MD