What You Need to Know About Calcium and Bone Health

What You Need to Know About Calcium and Bone Health

By Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN  | Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Olivia is a 13-year old swimmer. Her mom told me that Olivia wants to be vegan and she is concerned about getting enough protein on a plant-based eating plan. We talked about protein, but the conversation soon turned to bone health. When I asked Olivia about calcium-rich foods, she said, “I eat broccoli.” True, broccoli contains some calcium, but she would need to eat 62 cups of broccoli to get the needed 1300 milligrams of calcium. Adolescence is a crucial time for bone health. Dr. Anastasia Fischer, a sports medicine doctor and clinical associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Ohio State University, stresses that “most bone development occurs in early childhood and adolescence, and up to 60% of bone mass is acquired during adolescence. Bone mineral density shows a high degree of tracking over time, that is, a child with low bone mineral density will continue to have low bone mineral density throughout adolescence.” While it takes over a dozen nutrients to build healthy bones, calcium is a crucial nutrient.

Calcium intake is lower than the daily recommendation for most Americans, but especially for children 9 to 18 years old. If bone mass is not sufficiently strong in adolescence, it can’t recover or be made up for later in life. This sets the stage for poor bone strength and increases the risk for osteoporosis later in life. Jill Castle, registered dietitian and author of Eat Like a Champion, and developer of Nutrition Prep School, an online course on nutrition for young athletes, uses the analogy of a savings account at a bank. “Young athletes make deposits (calcium) into their savings account (bones) and they can withdraw calcium as they get older. If there isn’t enough calcium in the bone bank later in life, withdrawal of calcium can take its toll on bone health.”

So, how can Olivia get enough calcium? We know that about 50% of calcium in the U.S. diet comes from dairy foods (milk, yogurt, cheese), and I encouraged her to tell me why she wants to exclude all animal foods from her diet. As with many young people, she didn’t fully understand the implications of dietary choices on health; what Olivia really wanted to do was not eat meat. So, we talked about a vegetarian plan, one that included some dairy foods to get needed nutrients, but eliminated meat. We also stressed calcium-rich plant foods, too. Here are foods Olivia likes to eat that will also give her needed nutrients:

  • Cheese pizza (mozzarella cheese is a good source of calcium)
  • Yogurt with fruit
  • Calcium-fortified orange juice
  • Ready-to-eat breakfast cereal that has added calcium
  • Chocolate pudding
  • Raw broccoli

Olivia is on a good track for good athletic performance and bone health!

This article was inspired by “Fueling Teen Swimmers,” an educational session at the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics annual Food & Nutrition Conference and Exhibition in Chicago in October. I was invited to give the presentation with Dr. Anastasia Fischer, a sports medicine doctor and clinical associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Ohio State University.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor emerita of nutrition at Georgia State University. She is the author of the consumer book, Food & Fitness After 50. She welcomes questions from swimmers, parents and coaches. Email her at chrisrosenbloom@gmail.com; follow her on Twitter @chrisrosenbloom or visit her website at ChrisRoenbloom.com



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