March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
When you think of how optimal nutrition impacts your child's health, their bones may not be your first concern. After all, osteoporosis largely affects older adults. But, with children building about 40 percent of their bone mass between the ages of 9 to 14, and reaching 90 percent of their peak bone mass by age 18 (for girls) and age 20 (for boys), bone health absolutely is a health issue for kids.
Think of bone health as a savings account. Bone is living tissue that is constantly turned over with regular deposits and withdrawals. During childhood and adolescence, bones are primed to make the highest rate of deposits possible, for use throughout the rest of a person's life.
What Builds Healthy Bones?
Many nutrients work in concert to provide the framework for healthy bones. Calcium lies at the forefront, but vitamin D, magnesium, vitamin K and regular exercise also are important.
Aim for a good calcium source in each meal and snack. Milk, cheese and yogurt are the richest natural sources of calcium. For instance, one 8-ounce glass of milk provides 300 milligrams of calcium, or about one-fourth to one-third of the recommended intake. Other non-dairy food sources include almonds, broccoli, kale, turnip greens, figs, tofu prepared with calcium and soybeans. Some foods are fortified with calcium, including certain juices non-dairy beverages and cereals.
Sun exposure triggers vitamin D production, but this can vary greatly with skin pigmentation, season and geography. If you live in the northern United States, there is a good chance you won't get enough sun exposure in winter for adequate vitamin D production. Also, sunlight exposure increases risk of skin cancer and sunscreen blocks vitamin D production. There are some limited natural food sources of vitamin D, including egg yolks and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. You can find vitamin D in fortified sources such as orange juice, milk and some non-dairy beverages. Talk with your pediatrician about giving kids vitamin D supplements to reach the recommended 600 IU per day.
Look for food sources of this mineral, such as almonds, spinach, black beans, edamame, peanut butter, avocado, whole-wheat bread and kidney beans.
The best ways to get this vitamin are in foods such as green leafy vegetables (kale, turnip greens, cabbage, spinach and broccoli), peas and green beans. About 10 percent of the vitamin K we absorb is made from good bacteria in the colon.
Regular weight-bearing exercise stimulates bones and makes them stronger. Try exercises such as running, hiking, dancing, tennis, gymnastics, basketball, volleyball, skateboarding, soccer and weight training to build bones. While swimming and bicycling are great for cardiovascular health, they are not weight-bearing. If these are your child's preferred sports, encourage them to do weight-bearing activities too.
Avoid These Bad-for-Bone Actions
Just as important as what kids do to promote bone health is what they don't do. Bone health can be compromised in these critical years by:
- Drinking alcohol
- Dieting and disordered eating
- Undereating for sports training which can result in compromised hormonal status
- Absent or missed menstrual periods
Providing that children receive the best interplay of nutrients and exercise, while avoiding practices that harm bones, they can maximize their bone saving potential.