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Calcium and Your Teen - Why Milk Matters

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According to recent statistics 9 out of 10 teenage girls and 7 out of 10 teenage boys do NOT get enough calcium in their diet. Why is this such a frightening statistic? Calcium is the main mineral that strengthens bones and this is most important during adolescence when teens are going through their growth spurt. Almost half of the bone mass a teen will have for the rest of his life is made during adolescence. People reach their maximum bone density during adolescence and gradually lose bone mass the rest of their lives. When adolescents get enough calcium during the teen years, they can start out their adult lives with the strongest bones possible and significantly reduce their risk for fractures as an adult. This means the more you start off with the more you end up with.

So how much calcium is enough calcium? And how should you make sure your teenager gets an adequate supply? Nutrition guidelines recommend that children ages 9 through 18 get about 1300 mg or 3 servings of calcium every day, but how much calcium does that really mean? A serving size of calcium is about 300 milligrams. This is the same as an 8 ounce glass of milk or calcium fortified juice, 1 cup of yogurt or 2 slices of American cheese. However, while milk and dairy products are an excellent source of calcium, a lot of "non-dairy" foods can give you your calcium supply- 1 cup of white beans, broccoli or tofu. Food labels can also tell you how much calcium is in one serving of food. Look at the % Daily Value next to the calcium number on the food label. You should try to eat and drink foods with 20% or more of the daily value of calcium. These foods are good sources of calcium. You can also try to think of ways to get milk and other calcium rich foods into meals and snacks. You can top a baked potato with broccoli and low-fat cheese, or add a slice of cheese to your sandwich. For more sources of calcium and serving suggestions, check out the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website. (www.nichd.nih.gov/milkmatters) Although it's best for kids to get the calcium they need through a calcium-rich diet, sometimes this may not be possible. If you're concerned that your teen isn't getting enough calcium discuss calcium supplements with your teen's doctor.

What about the fat content of dairy foods? Many adolescents may decide to diet and avoid eating dairy foods they think will make them fat. It is important to let them know that fat-free and low-fat milk are excellent ways to get enough calcium without adding a lot of extra fat to their diet. An 8 ounce glass of skim milk has only 80 calories and zero fat and supplies 1/3 of a teenager's recommended daily calcium intake. You can also offer low-fat and nonfat dairy products as healthy alternatives to whole milk products - and instead of sodas and sugary fruit drinks that have very little nutritional value.

Just as important as drinking milk, it is also important to look at the other beverages your teenager consumes. Most teens drink more soda than milk which is also concerning because soda and other caffeinated beverages can interfere with the way the body absorbs and uses calcium. Also, a teenager who is drinking soda is often doing so INSTEAD of choosing to drink milk. A 1994 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health showed that teenage girls that drink more than 5 cans of soda per day are almost 4 times as likely to fracture a bone than a teenage boy.

But calcium isn't the only way to build strong bones. Be sure to encourage your child to be involved in regular physical activities and exercise. These activities are also very important in building healthy bones. Weight-bearing exercises such as jumping rope, jogging, or walking can also help develop strong bones by forcing your bones to work harder and build up bone mass. The Surgeon General recommends 30 minutes of weight bearing exercise at least 3 times a week. Bones are very similar to muscles and you have to use them regularly to help them build up strength.

Most importantly, act as a role model. Consume dairy products and other foods that are high in calcium as well as participate in regular exercise. Chances are you could use the calcium, too!

~Mary Romano, MD