Helping kids build healthy bones

Bone health may not be top of mind when you think about your child’s health needs, but it turns out that childhood and young adulthood are the most important years for building healthy bones. “Peak bone mass” is the greatest amount of bone an individual can achieve, and diet and exercise habits during childhood and adolescence play a key role in reaching optimum peak bone mass. Building a strong bone bank will also reduce the risk of osteoporosis later in life.

Being savvy about the array of calcium- and vitamin D-rich foods, understanding how to incorporate dairy into meals, and learning about bone-strengthening activities can help you to help your children build strong, healthy bones during these crucial years of growth and development. The Ministry of Health’s Eating and Activity Guidelines provide some practical advice on helping children to build their bone health.

Milk and dairy products

Children need two to three serves of milk and dairy foods (or calcium-fortified alternatives) each day to meet their calcium needs. More than 99% of the body’s calcium is contained in the bones and teeth, with the other 1% being in our blood. A calcium-rich diet is therefore important to achieving peak bone mass and building healthy bones. Milk and dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt are our best food sources of calcium, but other sources of calcium include:

  • Legumes
  • Canned fish with bones
  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Soy milk fortified with calcium
  • Nuts and seeds (especially sesame seeds)
  • Breakfast cereals fortified with calcium (cereals that provide at least 25% of our recommended daily intake (RDI) are a good source of calcium)

Got milk?

The 2008/09 New Zealand Child Nutrition Survey showed that around one in five children did not drink milk, and a third of young people weren’t getting enough calcium. It also showed that intake of milk decreased further in people’s early twenties, likely as young adults began making independent food choices. So establishing good milk-drinking habits and dairy consumption early on can help ensure kids keep getting enough calcium throughout their life! Here are some ways to encourage dairy consumption in kids:

  • A steaming milky porridge is a great winter warmer or in the summer months pour some ice-cold milk over cereal.
  • Pour yogurt over seasonal fruit.
  • Sandwiches/wraps mini quiches with cheese and choice of salad.
  • A fruit and milk-based smoothie (encourage your children to decide the flavour combination).
  • A yogurt-based dip, like tzatziki, with crackers and vegetable sticks.
  • Serve curries with a generous dollop of yogurt.
  • Substitute stock for milk when making risotto for a creamier result.
  • Add a generous splash of milk to creamy vegetable soups after pureeing for richness.

For kids who don’t like the taste of plain milk, research has shown that having flavoured milk or supplements like MILO with milk also contribute positively to children’s daily dairy intake. For children who may have an intolerance or allergy to milk, it is useful to speak with a dietitian or nutritionist to ensure their daily calcium needs are met through other food options.

Vitamin D to absorb calcium

Vitamin D is like calcium’s sidekick, because it’s needed for calcium absorption. While our body can make vitamin D through our exposure to the sun, almost a third of New Zealand children, have been found to have insufficient levels of it. According to the Ministry of Health, the risk of Vitamin D deficiency is highest in people with dark, pigmented skin, those with limited sun exposure, and (in winter) those who live in the South Island. The New Zealand Cancer Society advises that during winter months, a daily walk or another form of outdoor physical activity around noon, with face, arms, and hands exposed helps with vitamin D production.

While sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, foods that contain vitamin D include fatty fish, beef liver, and egg yolks. But these aren’t often high on the menu for children, so foods fortified with vitamin D such as breakfast cereal and MILO added to milk can be useful. Nestlé Nutritionist and mum of two kids Michelle McCracken says, “MILO added to a glass of milk is a great way to encourage children to drink milk. MILO provides essential nutrients that may be lacking in the diet including calcium and Vitamin D.”

Get Moving!

Being physically active is also essential for growing bodies and helps children develop healthy bones. The Ministry of Health recommends that school-aged children and young people should have:

  • At least one hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
  • No more than two hours of recreational screen time a day.
  • Quality uninterrupted sleep of 9 to 11 hours per night for children aged 5 to 13 years, with consistent bed and wake-up times.

There are also bone-strengthening activities for kids, which can double as aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities:

  • Games like hopscotch (for children)
  • Hopping, skipping, jumping
  • Bouncing on a trampoline
  • Rope skipping
  • Running
  • Sports like gymnastics, basketball, volleyball

For more details on the physical activity guidelines for children, click here. The Ministry of Health also provides a factsheet on how to get your children more active.

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