By Nancy Gottesman
Most of us know that calcium is essential for developing strong bones. During toddlerhood, your child’s body uses this vital mineral to build teeth and bones—a process that will be basically complete by the end of adolescence. “Young children need calcium to set a foundation for the future,” explains Sue Cowen, MS, RD, a registered dietitian specializing in pediatric nutrition at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “If they don’t have adequate calcium, it can affect their growth—they won’t be as tall and their bones won’t be as strong.”
What you probably don’t know about calcium is that it also plays a vital role in muscle contraction, heartbeat, releasing hormones and sending messages through the nervous system. It’s unlikely that the consequences of low calcium intake would be noticed in childhood. Later in life, however, lack of calcium can pose a serious threat to health. “In the worst-case scenario, the body will leech calcium from the bones to get what it needs [for other body functions], but the calcium deficiency has to be extreme for this to happen,” says Cowen.
Go on a milk run
Dairy products are the best sources of calcium—another fact that most of us already know about this bone-building mineral. Milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy foods contain a form of calcium that the body can easily absorb, more so than the calcium found in foods like enriched cereals and orange juice. “Kids love orange juice, which is why it’s calcium-enriched,” explains Cowen. “But [nutritionists] aren’t certain about how bioavailable the calcium in juice is.”
Another upside to milk and other dairy is that much of it is fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. Although nonfat, low-fat and whole milk all contain approximately 300 milligrams of calcium per cup, 1- to 2-year-olds need to drink whole-fat milk. “Children under age 2 need certain essential fatty acids for brain growth and development,” says Cowen. “After age 2, you can switch to low-fat or nonfat milk.”
If your child is allergic to milk (or can’t tolerate milk foods)—or if your family follows a vegan diet—you can choose from some good dairy alternatives such as calcium-enriched rice- or soy-based milk, frozen desserts, sorbets, puddings and ice pops. Other nondairy calcium sources include dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, chickpeas, and fortified cereals and orange juice.
The body absorbs calcium in food better than in supplement form. However, if you believe your child isn’t getting enough from her diet alone, discuss it with your pediatrician, who may recommend a chewable supplement. “Most important for instilling good eating behaviors is being a good role model,” stresses Cowen. “If you ask your child to drink her milk and eat her vegetables, you have to do it, too!”
Health and nutrition writer Nancy Gottesman makes sure that she and her son Robby, 13, both drink plenty of milk at home in Santa Monica, Calif