Importance of Calcium in a Child’s Diet Back »

Written by Mollie Loes under the direction and review of Marjorie Zastrow, former SDSU Extension Nutrition Field Specialist.

Bones are always being remodeled by the removal of old bone and replacement of new bone, so a key building block for bone health is calcium. Bones need continuous maintenance or they can become weak and break. If the diet is low in calcium, your body will take calcium from the bones to keep the calcium levels in your blood normal. Calcium is one nutrient children cannot afford to skip, so making milk and other calcium-rich foods a must in a child’s diet.

Most children ages 9-18 are not consuming the recommended amount of calcium per day. Babies and younger children who do not get enough calcium and vitamin D are at an increased risk for rickets, a bone-softening disease that causes bowing of the legs, poor growth, and possibly muscle pain and weakness.

During childhood and adolescence the body uses calcium to build those strong bones, and usually is complete by the end of adolescence. Bone calcium will begin to decrease in young adulthood and as we age progressive bone loss happens, especially in women. Teenagers, particularly girls, whose diets do not provide enough calcium to their body are at greater risk for developing bone disease osteoporosis, which may lead to an increase of broken bones. Making sure that muscles and nerves work properly is another important role of calcium.

Vitamin D is an important nutrient provided in milk and is essentials for calcium absorption. Vitamin D can be made by the body when the skin has been exposed to sunlight, but can also be found in fortified foods, fish, and egg yolks.

With enough calcium in a healthy diet and physical activity, children can start adulthood with the strongest bones possible. For optimal bone health, the dietary reference intake for calcium is as follows:

  • 2 to 3 years old – 700 milligrams of calcium daily or 2 cups equivalent diary
  • 4 to 8 years old – 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily or 2 ½ cups equivalent dairy
  • 9 to 18 years old – 1,300 milligrams of calcium daily or 3 cups equivalent

1 cup of equivalent dairy equals 1 cup milk (regular or lactose free), yogurt, pudding or fortified soy beverage; 1½ ounces natural cheese; 2 ounces processed cheese; or 2 cups cottage cheese. When choosing dairy products chose reduced or non-fat options; these choices have comparable calcium to that of higher fat items but contain fewer calories and less cholesterol. For those with lactose sensitivity there are reduced or lactose-free options.

Milk and other dairy products are a good source of calcium, and most contain added vitamin D. But do not forget the other healthy-calcium fortified foods.

  • Calcium-fortified orange juice
  • White beans
  • Almonds
  • Red beans
  • Broccoli, cooked

Regular physical activity and exercise are also very important in bone health and overall health, so motivate children to be active

The best way for children is get calcium is through a calcium rich-diet, but sometimes it is not always possible. If there is concern about child not getting enough calcium, talk with your doctor about calcium supplements. As always, be a role model and enjoy low-fat dairy products along with other calcium-rich foods along with your children!

Further information on calcium and bone health may be found at ChooseMyPlate,, or the National Dairy Council.

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