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Round Out Your Child’s Plate

Help your kids thrive with these nutrition powerhouses.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD

Children thrive on dozens of nutrients that work together to promote growth and development. While no single nutrient or group of nutrients is any more important to a child's well-being, these five get a lot of attention whenever kids' nutrition is discussed.

Calcium: A Must-Have Nutrient for Bone Health

Calcium, the most abundant mineral in the body, maximizes bone growth and shores up the skeleton during childhood and beyond. A small but significant amount of calcium in the bloodstream is needed for a normal heartbeat, blood clotting, and muscle function. The body withdraws the calcium it needs from bones to maintain blood levels, which is partly why children need adequate calcium every day. Many kids don't get enough for their nutritional needs.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob, RD, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, says, "American kids are suffering from a calcium crisis, and it does not bode well for their bone health -- now or in the future."

Teenage girls in particular are among those with the lowest calcium intake relative to their needs. Calcium deficiency is especially dicey during adolescence when the body forms about half the bone mass it will ever have. Consistently coming up short on calcium during these years is one of the risk factors for developing osteoporosis decades later. It's even worse for females because of their greater risk for the condition.

How much calcium is enough? According the Institute of Medicine, kids' daily calcium needs depend on age:

  • Kids 1- to 3 years old need 500 milligrams.
  • 4- to 8-year-olds need 800 milligrams.
  • Kids 9 to 18 years old need 1,300 milligrams.

Ayoob says part of the solution to low calcium intake is offering young children and teens calcium-rich beverages and snacks rather than soft drinks, snack chips, and candy. Eight ounces of white or flavored milk, 8 ounces of yogurt, and 1.5 ounces of hard cheese each contain about 300 milligrams of calcium.

While dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium, calcium is also plentiful in plant products such as fortified orange juice and soy beverages, tofu processed with calcium sulfate, and certain breakfast cereals (check the label to be sure).

The benefits of making high-calcium foods, particularly dairy, part of your child's daily diet may extend beyond building strong bones. Sheah Rarback, RD, director of nutrition and associate professor at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami, says, "Emerging research suggests that calcium in dairy foods as part of a balanced diet helps adults achieve and maintain a healthy weight. And the same may be true for children."

Preliminary evidence shows dairy does work for kids. One study linked higher calcium intake to lower body fat levels in children aged 2 to 8. Milk and dairy foods were the main sources of calcium in the children's diets in the study.

Vitamin D is important for the absorption of calcium to help form and maintain strong bones. Since breast milk does not contain significant amounts of vitamin D, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends all breastfed and partially breastfed infants receive 400 IU of vitamin D from liquid supplements each day.

Milk fortified with vitamin D is one of the few dietary sources of Vitamin D. So children over 1 should drink 32 ounces of fortified milk each day or get other sources of vitamin D. For these children, the AAP recommends 400 IU/day of vitamin D.

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