When it comes to concerns about your child’s health, helping them to have strong bones may not be at the top of your list, but it should be.
Building strong bones by adopting healthy nutritional and lifestyle habits in early childhood is critically important in helping to prevent osteoporosis later in life. Osteoporosis, a condition of thinned bones that are prone to fractures, has been called “a pediatric disease with geriatric consequences” because the bone mass attained during childhood and adolescence is the most important determinant of long-term skeletal health.
In other words, the eating habits, activity levels, and supplement usage of your kids today may very well make or break their bones as they age.
Building the Bone Bank
Bone is living tissue with continuous remodeling occurring throughout life, with a balance between bone formation and bone resorption.[i] This critical balance between the breakdown and formation of bone changes as we age. During childhood, there is a higher amount of bone formation than bone breakdown and, thus, it is during this critical time that your child’s bones increase in both size and density. In fact, by the time girls reach age 18 and boys reach age 20, up to 90% of peak bone mass has been acquired.[ii]
Once we reach our 30s, the rate of bone breakdown and formation are relatively equal—although there is still an ongoing remodeling of bone that requires the support of all bone nutrients. At menopause (for women) and beginning in the 60s (for most men), bone breakdown exceeds bone formation, which can result in loss of bone mass. The first five years after menopause are the most critical for potential loss of bone density and the development of osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Because your child is going to achieve most if not all of their peak bone mass by age 20, what they do in childhood, adolescence, and the teen years is critically important for their long-term bone health.
What Are the Essential Nutrients for Strong Bones?
Many nutrients play a role in proper bone development.
- Calcium, phosphorous, and magnesium all are incorporated into and form the matrix of bone
- Zinc, copper, and manganese are trace minerals that serve as catalysts for metabolic reactions involved in building bone
- Vitamin D assists with the intestinal absorption of calcium; and vitamin K assists in the creation and proper function of a protein produced by bone-forming cells during bone matrix formation
Although all are essential to developing strong bones, the two nutrients of particular concern for growing infants and children are calcium and vitamin D.
Physical Activity and Bone Strength
Building strong bones during childhood and optimizing bone health throughout life involves not only getting one’s daily requirement for all bone health nutrients, but it also entails getting regular exercise.
Exercise, specifically “weight- bearing” activities such as jumping rope, walking, dancing, and playing organized sports (e.g. gymnastics, basketball, soccer, and hockey) stimulate bone-building cells, which ultimately will help increase bone size and mass.
Therefore, one of the most important things you can do as a parent is to encourage your children to participate in weight-bearing activity for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week.
Optimizing Bone Health with Supplementation
Helping children build strong bones and healthy teeth and gums starts early. Parents should begin by offering and making available a variety of healthful food choices rich in essential bone-health nutrients, paying special attention to calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, and manganese, as well as vitamins D and K.
Dairy products provide the best source of calcium, and many of the other bone-health nutrients can be found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, dark-green vegetables, lean meats, poultry, and seafood. However, because national surveys consistently show that most children fail to achieve the recommended intake of calcium or vitamin D, parents are making a wise decision by providing their children with a comprehensive multivitamin that contains at least 400 IU to 600 IU of vitamin D, 200 mg of calcium, as well as the other nutrients listed above to add to the nutrients already being provided in their diets.
Give your child the best chance to achieve optimal bone mass during one of the most critical periods in life by investing now in your child’s bone health. Not only will you be helping them to keep their bones strong, but you’ll be helping them to reduce their risk of developing osteoporosis later in life.
[i] Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes: Calcium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Vitamin D, and Fluoride. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997.
[ii] National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disorders. Kids and their Bones: A Guide for Parents. NIH Pub. 06-5186. August 2002. Revised December 2005.
Factors Affecting Peak Bone Mass
- Gender: Bone mass or density generally is higher in men than in women. Before puberty, boys and girls develop bone mass at similar rates, but after puberty, boys tend to acquire greater bone mass than girls.
- Race: For reasons not well understood, African-American girls tend to achieve higher peak bone mass than Caucasian girls. And girls of Asian descent tend to have the lowest bone mass. However, because all women—regardless of race—are at significantly higher risk for osteoporosis, girls of all races need to build as much bone mass as possible to help protect against this disease.
- Hormones: Sex hormones, including estrogen and testosterone, are essential for the development of bone mass. Girls who start to menstruate at an earlier age typically have greater bone density. Girls who have been diagnosed with anorexia as well as female athletes who have very low body-fat levels and abnormal menses are at greater risk of not achieving optimal bone density.
- Nutrition: Calcium in particular is essential for bone health. In fact, calcium deficiencies in young people can account for 5%–10% lower peak bone mass and may increase the risk of bone fractures later in life. A well-balanced diet that includes adequate amounts of vitamins D and K, as well as the minerals calcium, magnesium, zinc, copper, and manganese, also is essential to bone health.
- Physical Activity: Important for building healthy bones, weight-bearing activities that stimulate bone growth—such as running and jumping rope—are especially important.
Important Food Sources of Bone-Health Nutrients
Calcium: milk, cheese, yogurt, fortified soy and almond milk
Magnesium: dark, leafy greens; nuts; seeds
Vitamin D: fortified milk (dairy & non-dairy), salmon, eggs
Vitamin K: kale, spinach, broccoli
Manganese: whole grains, nuts, peas
Zinc: beef, chicken, pork, fortified cereal
Copper: seafood, nuts, seeds