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calcium and adolescents

Calcium is a mineral. It plays an essential role in building healthy teeth and bones. Unfortunately, most adolescents do not eat enough high-calcium foods. They are at risk of developing osteoporosis when they get older. Infancy, childhood and adolescence are critical periods for achieving peak bone mass. The skeleton increases in mass 3-fold in adolescence.

What food source is the nutrient found in? 
About 70% of the calcium in the Australian diet comes from dairy foods, such as milk, yoghurt, and cheese. These foods are best because they contain high amounts of calcium. For instance, 1 cup of milk, 200g of yoghurt, and 40g ounces of cheese each contain 300 - 400 mg of calcium. They also provide other nutrients that help the body better absorb calcium, such as vitamin D, lactose and magnesium. Dairy products are a good source of protein and riboflavin, which are needed for proper growth and development.

Vegetables, grains, and beans also provide calcium, but the calcium in these foods are not absorbed easily or as well as the calcium in dairy foods.

Calcium may be poorly absorbed in these foods:
  • spinach, sweet potatoes, and beans, which are high in oxalic acid
  • unleavened bread, raw beans, seeds, and nuts
As a result, several servings of these foods are needed to provide the body with the same amount of calcium present in one serving of dairy products.

How does the nutrient affect the body? 
Calcium is essential to building healthy teeth and bones. Strong bones enable a person to stay physically active all through his or her life. It also reduces a person's risk for osteoporosis he or she gets older.

It is during the teen years that physical activity and nutrition play an important role in hip development. This is the time when calcium is best absorbed and when most bones are formed. By the time a person reaches the age of 17, about 90% of his or her adult bone mass has been established. To support the growth of strong bones, guidelines recommend that Boys aged 12-15 consume 1200mg, girls aged 12-15 consume 1000mg Boys aged 16-18 consume 1000 mg, girls aged 16 to 18 consume 800mg of calcium each day. .

The gap between the amount of calcium that is recommended and the amount of calcium the typical child gets each day is large. These children may not be getting enough calcium because:
  • they don't eat or drink enough dairy foods
  • they don't eat enough fruits and vegetables
  • they drink too many soft drinks
  • suspected allergies
  • self imposed dietary restrictions
Another factor may be lactose intolerance. A person with lactose intolerance cannot digest lactose, the natural sugar present in milk. Symptoms include bloating, flatulence, stomach cramping, and diarrhoea after eating dairy products.

Children and teens who do not consume enough calcium are not able to achieve maximal bone mass. This puts them at risk for osteoporosis, or brittle bone disease, when they get older. One in two women and one in three men aged 60 or more will break bones due to osteoporosis. There is no cure for osteoporosis, so prevention is the key.

Here are some ways that teens can increase their calcium intake:
  • Eat or drink 3 to 5 servings of low-fat dairy foods, such as low-fat milk, yoghurt or cheese, each day.
  • Offer children milk to drink rather than sweetened drinks and fruit juices
  • Encourage breakfast cereals (preferably wholegrain, with no added sugar or fat) with milk, as a convenient and nutritious snack for children and adolescents at any time of the day.
  • Choose desserts such as milk puddings, milk jellies whips, custards and yoghurts
  • Add skim milk powder to mashed potato, soup and when baking
  • Try casseroles and pasta dishes using milk-based white sauce and melted cheese into white sauces to pour over vegetables
  • Sprinkle grated cheese on mashed potato, cauliflower, and other vegetables, and have cheese in pizza toppings, on dry biscuits, in sandwiches or as finger food snacks.
  • Substitute natural yoghurt for sour cream in dips, and dollop natural yoghurt on pasta dishes, stir fried vegetables, tacos and nachos
  • Substitute cream cheese spread or plain fromage frais for butter or margarine, on dry biscuits, savoury muffins toast and in sandwiches
It is estimated that 23-29% of boys aged 12 to 13 years and 25-30% of girls aged 10 -15 years consumed less than half the recommended dietary intake for calcium. (National Dietary Survey of School Children, 1985)

Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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