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Got Calcium? Half of U.S. Kids, Teens Need More

April 15, 2002|EMILY DWASS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Calcium is one of the most important nutrients for kids, but too many of them don't get enough of it.

More than half of American children and teens have diets that are lacking in this nutrient, experts say, putting them at risk for serious health problems. Long-term low calcium intake is linked to an increase in broken bones, dental problems and weaker bones later in life (called osteoporosis).

"Your bones are like a bank account. You can put in the biggest deposits in terms of building bones, up until the age of 18. After that, all your body does is make withdrawals," says Joan Carter, a registered dietitian and instructor with the Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.

In addition to building strong bones and teeth, calcium helps your muscles contract, your heart beat, your blood clot and your nerves function.

Children ages 4 to 8 need 800 milligrams of calcium daily; kids from 9 to 18 require 1,300 milligrams. Dairy foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese are an excellent source of calcium; low-fat and nonfat products are fine, as are flavored milks.

Some kids can't digest dairy foods, and other people choose not to use milk products. In such cases, it's especially important to find other sources of calcium. Some examples are calcium-fortified foods such as soy milk and cheeses, cereals and juices, plus tofu and some leafy vegetables. If you don't eat dairy products, a doctor or a nutritionist can help you and your parents plan a balanced diet.

In general, kids should get their calcium from food, rather than from supplements intended for adults. (In fact, always check with your doctor before taking any kind of supplement or vitamin.)

"I discourage calcium supplements [for kids] because food offers a banquet of nutrients," says Carter.

Some studies suggest that dark colas may interfere with the body's ability to absorb calcium.

Experts also say that kids who drink sodas are losing out on nutrients from healthier beverages. There's no question that sodas should be regarded as an occasional treat, rather than a daily drink.

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Kid Health appears the third Monday of every month. Kids and other readers can e-mail Emily Dwass at emilydwass@yahoo.com. Next month's topic: cavities.

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