You see the results of a child’s bone health every day: playing sports, running, jumping and even walking. While most of us know that bone health is important, kids are often left out of the discussion. Many people associate bone health and osteoporosis as conditions for older adults to consider. What you may not know is that the foundation of your child’s bone health starts early in life.
“About 90% of your bone density will be set by the time you are 20 years old,” says Sandra Sellers, RDN, CSSD Health and Wellness Senior Manager, United Dairy Industry of Michigan. “And, the majority of bone growth takes place between the ages of 10 and 20.”
What role does bone health play in your child’s health?
Because the body builds most of its bone density early in life, not making bone health a priority can cause unexpected consequences.
“Adolescents who haven’t built strong bones in childhood are at higher risk of bone breaks,” Sellers points out. “Plus, children who don’t build strong bones may be at a higher risk of osteoporosis later on in life.” For females, that risk is even higher.
How does diet play a role?
Getting enough calcium is one of the most basic ways you can help ensure your child’s bone health. Sellers recommends dairy products as one of the best and most efficient ways to deliver this important nutrient to your child.
“Calcium from dairy milk is easily absorbed into the body,” says Sellers. “Dairy milk is one of the best ways to get calcium, including chocolate milk. Dairy foods like yogurt and cottage cheese are always good choices. Using plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream and adding milk to sauces are also good ways to help your child get the calcium they need.”
And while dairy foods are more easily absorbed, Sellers says there are some great plant alternatives. “Soy products like tofu and edamame are good sources of calcium, plus green leafy vegetables, among a variety of other foods.”
How much calcium should you offer at any one meal? It’s all about balance, says Sellers. “The body only can absorb so much calcium at one time, so spreading the servings of dairy or calcium-rich foods throughout the course of the day is ideal.” This approach gives you many opportunities to offer these foods, whether it be in snacks or meals like breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Does exercise boost bone health?
While diet is important to bone health, it’s not the only thing to consider. “Exercise is beneficial to growing healthy bones,” Sellers says. “Weight-bearing exercise in particular is beneficial to bone health.”
Not to worry: Weight-bearing exercise doesn’t mean lifting weights. Many types of common childhood activities are weight-bearing exercises and they are excellent for building strong bones. Jumping rope, hopscotch, running and brisk walking are all examples of fun and easy weight-bearing exercises. So, get kids up and moving as much as possible every day for the best bone health.
How do I make sure my kids get the right nutrients?
While dairy is one of the most important foods to serve for bone health, a healthy diet filled with vitamins and minerals is the goal.
It’s all about making sure you offer nutrient-rich foods at meal times and for snacks, Sellers says. “I don’t consider any food as ‘bad’ or ‘good’,” she says. “What you want to do is to offer kids great choices and understand which foods have more nutritional value than others.”
The best way to provide variety in the diet is by offering a variety of foods – aiming for half of the plate to be colorful fruits and veggies, about ¼ lean protein like chicken and ¼ whole grains like whole grain bread, whole grain pasta or brown rice. For snacks, try to pair a protein + produce, which will help your child feel full longer. That doesn’t mean they can’t have a fun snack as well, but prioritize foods with higher nutrition.
Simply having certain foods as part of your daily routine is a great way to make sure kids get enough healthy nutrients. “At my house, we have fruit in a bowl on the table. I tell my kids that the bowl of fruit is fair game, and they can feel free to take a piece whenever they want without asking.”
Other tips for getting kids on board with healthy foods? Keep things like string cheese and yogurt cups at “child-sized heights” in the refrigerator at all times. “That way, your child has easy access to helping themselves to a healthy snack,” says Sellers.
Your child’s bone health will benefit them for the rest of their life. Getting kids started with healthy habits at a young age will make it more likely they make those habits part of their routines.