Keep your child's bones healthy

By Sara Curtis on March 01, 2012
Most parents understand the value of investing in RESPs: healthy and consistent deposits now can yield huge dividends later. It’s the same thing with your child’s bones. The first 15 to 20 years are critical in determining the strength and density of their bones for the rest of their life. 

For girls, 90 percent of their bone is laid down by the age of 15, and for boys it’s age 17 or 18, says Dr. Stephanie Atkinson, professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and a researcher in nutrition and bone metabolism. It is at this age that children reach peak bone mass. “Once you reach peak mass, there’s no stimulus to lay down a lot more; bone constantly changes, and if mineral is withdrawn it is renewed, but after this time bone density will not significantly increase.” 

The greatest amount of bone is laid down in the two years surrounding puberty. “Get ready for that pubertal growth spurt,” says Dr. Atkinson. “Children need to be laying the groundwork for that all-important time around puberty when they are going to reach peak bone mass. It’s incredibly important.” 

As long as your child is growing, the bones are depositing minerals and increasing mass. Building good bone health comes down to two things: proper nutrition and plenty of the right kind of exercise. 

Eat right

Nutrition for healthy bones centers around, not surprisingly, calcium. School-aged children need 1,000 mg of calcium a day, or the equivalent of about three glasses of milk. They also need 600 international units of Vitamin D, and one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight (between 10 and 30 grams) every day. “Most people think about calcium when they think about bones, but protein is really important too,” says Dr. Atkinson. “The structural unit of bone is collagen. For most people, if they are drinking milk and eating meat, they will be getting sufficient protein.” Parents of vegetarian children need to be especially vigilant to ensure their children are getting the recommended daily dose of protein. Calcium or vitamin supplements are not necessary as long as the child is eating properly, says Dr. Atkinson. 

“Food sources are always better. They get a whole cadre of nutrients along with the calcium and Vitamin D they need.”

Activity

Weight-bearing activities such as walking, running, basketball, gymnastics and soccer are best for building bone density. “Weight bearing” means any exercise that is done while on your feet that works your muscles and bones against gravity. In the same way that muscles get stronger the more you use them, bones become stronger and denser the more work they do. Whether it’s organized sports, playing outside, or a combination of the two, weight-bearing exercise builds healthy bones.

What if my kids don't like milk

  • Try fortified orange juice, soy milk or rice milk. The latter two, by law, have to have calcium and Vitamin D in amounts comparable to cow's milk.
  • Many breads and cereals are also fortified with calcium.
  • Make soup, oatmeal or hot chocolate with milk instead of water.
  • Add ice cream, plan or vanilla yogurt or milk to fruit smoothies.
  • Purée silken tofu into regular tomato sauce, and your kids will think it's a creamy rosé sauce.
  • Add a handful of almonds (dry roasted on a cookie sheet in your oven for 30 minutes at 325 degrees) to your salad or cereal for an extra toasty crunch.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February/March 2012.

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